Updated: May 14, 2020
Since its initial publication, Toni Morrison’s Beloved has been and remains to be a central point of discussion when it comes to the genre of American Literature. In fact, this beloved novel has for a number of years addressed many hard pressing issues that exist within the realm of American histories such as slavery and the role of the female sex as mothers. However, these issues that are found with the pages of Toni Morrison's novel have proven time and time again to make for a rather complex and difficult read for some individuals. These difficulties are in some part due to a large amount of symbolism that is continuously found throughout the narrative itself. In the critical article entitled, “Reading at the Cultural Inference: The Corn Symbolism of Beloved by Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, the various relationships found within Morrison's novel is explored through the cultural lenses of agriculture. However, while the majority of Harding and Martian’s argument regarding relationships in the text is well thought out and correct in many ways; the authors fail to consider and further extend the argument of the article to include the relationship between Beloved and Sethe when making their claims.
The critical article entitled, “Reading at the Cultural Inference: The Corn Symbolism of Beloved by Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin explores the relationships between a number of cultural inferences that can be found with the narrative of Beloved. This is ultimately accomplished well, through the use of the symbolism of the corn and likewise, looking specifically at Sethe’s sexual experience that is shared with Paul D in the cornfield. From here, Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin chose to tackle this iconic moment found in the text from many different angles and schools of literary thought such as Marxism(which is the basic belief that literature is related in some way to everyday life that is exhibited in the world) and Feminism. The work itself also addressed the idea that all of these different complex ways of. Looking at Morrison's text as a whole is a prime example of how a text’s ideas and issues are meant to work together in order to create a more cohesive and holistic argument in regards to the events of the text. This allows the narrative, in general, to be as realistic as possible, thereby making the events that take place more believable in nature. This is ultimately what allows the story to carry out as much truth as well as many lies it needs; in order for it to due what the narrative was originally conceived to do as a piece of art. However, this piece of work will primarily be focused upon how the historical relationship of slavery and the division this practice causes throughout the text is represented through the universal and central symbol of the stocks of corn that Sethe and Paul D choose to so fervently making love in between. Within the article, Harding and Martin make the following observation based on Toni Morrison's own thoughts on author Herman Melville’s critically acclaimed classic novel, Moby Dick.
“In a founding critical evaluation on a single code of reference, each of the critical paradigms outlined so far inevitably produces distortions and omissions. Determinants such as gender, race, class, or ethnicity, although correctly explained in isolation, are not properly accounted for in situations when they interact with one another. Indeed, the place where cultural determinants overlap is a site of dense complex Morrison has clearly demonstrated in her reading of Moby Dick as the "unspoken" response to the Black presence in American society at the moment "when whiteness became ideology" (Morrison "Unable," 15). She discovers in this canonical text what she calls “ the ghost in the machine" ("Unspeakable," 11), evidence of the presence of Afro-Americans in American culture,”(89).
This assures that complex texts such as Toni Morrison's Beloved together with texts like Moby Dick work and is more readily understood when many critical cultural lenses and schools of thought are taken into consideration together while reading rather isolated from one another. This means that texts that are important are lost every time a complex text such as Beloved is read with only one critical lense taken into account. With this in mind, it is extremely crucial to look at the complex relationship of slavery that is found repeatedly in the narrative of Beloved. Harding and Martin write the following ideas in the following way in order to talk about Morrison's text.
“Sethe's and Paul D's interlaced memory of the cornfield would respond both to the dehumanizing pressure of the institution of slavery and the necessity (for slave and ex-slave)to assert humanity. The resulting icon of the husk of corn is a construction that masks contradiction like the white whale but one that emphasizes it. Rather than subsuming complexity in unity, Morrison's symbolism reveals ambivalence in multiplicity. In the cases of Melville's and Morrison's work, although in opposite ways, an ambivalent construction that we call an 'interface' has been created between cultures in conflict,”(89).
Taking the section of text from Beloved with this framework in mind the moment can clearly be considered as a representation of how slavery defined the world in which the text takes place. For Paul D the cornfield is a place to escape from the oppression that has followed him all of his life and in much the same way the same goes for Sethe. However, in reality, neither of them is, in fact, free from their slave owner because Harding and Martin write the Cornfield still belong to him. Therefore, the very sexual act that is supposed to be one of freedom is not actually an act of freedom at all; due to the fact that the location where this activity is carried out does not belong to them. Just like corn itself can easily be harvested from the field and sold in the marketplace; Sethe and Paul D can just as easily be sold and ripped away like the corn husk. Slavery in its most basic sense is an act of division that is not easily unwoven and unchained as it is represented in the text.
However, while the iconic sex in the cornfield scene from the text is reminiscent and representative of slavery as Harding and Martin suggests there is another relationship within the text that exhibits the characteristics of slavery. This relationship exists between Sethe and Beloved. Throughout the text once Beloved has been introduced the reader slowly is able to see that Sethe is in both an emotional and physical sense enslaved to her dead daughter. In fact as the text processes, Beloved begins to suck Sethe’s life out of her to the point where Sethe looks like she is on the doorstep of death itself about ready to step over the threshold into the afterlife. In this way, Beloved is like the aspects the corn husk that is actively suffocating the actual corn that resides inside of the husk waiting to be separated from its host. This most clearly seen toward the end of the text in the following passage on pages 308-309.
“ The singing women recognized Sethe at once and surprised themselves by their absence of fear when they saw what stood next to her. The devil-child was clever, they thought. And beautiful. It had taken the shape of a pregnant woman, naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun. Thunder black and glistening, she stood on long straight legs, her belly big and tight. Vines of hair twisted all over her head. Jesus. Her smile was dazzling. Sethe feels her eyes burn and it may have been to keep them clear that she looks up. The sky is blue and clear. Not one touch of death in the definite green of the leaves. It is when she lowers her eyes to look again at the loving faces before her that she sees him. Guiding the mare, slowing down, his black hat wide-brimmed enough to hide his face but not his purpose. He is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing. She hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies. The ice pick is not in her hand; it is her hand. Standing alone on the porch, Beloved is smiling. But now her hand is empty. Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe has been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind.”
Therefore, it is only in the last moments of the text itself that Sethe attempts to break free from her slave owner once again, this time it being Beloved. This, however, proves to be unsuccessful due to the fact that she is tackled on her way down the road to her own personal deemed “freedom” because she is thought to be mad. Therefore she becomes so subject to someone else's metaphorical lashing.
In this way, Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin’s article entitled, “Reading at the Cultural Inference: The Corn Symbolism of Beloved does, in fact, explore the fundamental relationship between slavery and cultural inferences. However, in their analysis, they fail to consider the dynamics of slavery that is effectively exhibited through the mother-daughter relationship between Beloved and Sethe. Beloved as a text attempts to look at American history as well as literature through a complex web that is always interconnected with one another.
However, the military general Napoleon Bonaparte once said the following about the concept of history. “ What is history but a fable agreed upon? This statement in a number of ways rings true for the novel Beloved; simply based upon the fact that the story itself finds its backbone in through a narrative that seems to be shaping history in its own way, that is based upon the narrator’s perception of events rather than what may have actually transpired. This means that perhaps American Literature itself is like the corn in the cornfIeld waiting to be husked. Waiting to be altered and changing by those who are ready and willing to rewrite and retell its origins in a new way.
Harding, Wendy, and Jacky Martin. "Reading at the Cultural Interface: The Corn Symbolism of Beloved." Jstor.org. : Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS), n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.Website
Morrison, T. Beloved: A Novel; Plume Contemporary Fiction; Plume: New York, 1988.