You’re lost in your own world, in the things that happen there, and you’ve locked all the doors. Sometimes I look at you sleeping. I wake up and look at you and I feel closer to you when you’re like that, unguarded, than when you’re awake. When you’re awake you’re like someone with her eyes closed, watching a movie on the inside of your eyelids. I can’t reach you anymore. Once upon a time I could, but not now, and not for a long time.
“That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you…haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”
“I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.”
“Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.'”
“Forget that…there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.”
–Andy and Red, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, from Different Seasons, Stephen King
Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
We’ve quoted Rebecca Solnit before here.
How do people survive horrible experiences? In Beloved, Toni Morrison gives an illustration of resilience and how fragile it is.
When good hearted Paul D. appears on Sethe’s porch one day in 1873 neither has any idea how his arrival will shake their lives and their Ohio community. It isn’t that he carries a secret. It is that he is unaware of the truth that everyone else knows. His coming will awaken that truth, opening old wounds that will either heal or kill.
Paul D. and Sethe are both former slaves who escaped from a farm called Sweet Home after it was passed on to relatives of the original owners. Mr. and Mrs. Garner had been atypical slave owners who allowed their slaves to learn to read and write, to carry guns and to speak their own opinions. This left their small group of slaves easy prey to the racism and prejudice of the new owners, who felt obliged to punish them for “privileges” to which they had become accustomed. Paul D. and Sethe are the last alive and are free after years of hardship… at least they appear so.
When Paul D. arrives, Sethe is in a bad situation: she lives alone, isolated from the community, in a house inhabited by her youngest daughter, Denver, a teenager, and the ghost of her dead baby girl, who bumps and stomps around the house. Her mother-in-law is long dead, her husband never made it back from Sweet Home, and her two boys have run away. She and her house reek of death and despair, but Paul D. is drawn to this beautiful woman that he desired so many years ago and he is unwilling to see it. Unspoken truth looms over them, sowing discontent.
In Alabama, where Paul D. was in prison, he was part of a chain gang. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, prisoners were put on the chain for the duration of their sentence. They couldn’t relieve themselves or sleep without being chained to the next man. These men were escaped slaves or captured free men and many were there on trumped up charges, for stealing in order to eat, for assault or killing in self-defense. Through incredible teamwork, Paul D.’s entire unit escaped one night in a heavy rainstorm and were freed by Cherokee Indians who sympathized with the prisoners and removed their chains. He became a free man, although he feels that he doesn’t know how to be one.
Sethe was never chained in the way Paul D. was, although she spent some time in prison. Instead, her chains exist in her mind and are every bit as real as his leg irons. She has withdrawn from everyone who might help her remove them, isolating herself from the world around her and thus verifying and accepting the judgments of her neighbors and of her former captors. She has nourished accusing memories and remained stoic and silent.
Beloved stirs up deep emotions. How much can a human being take? It also encourages us to reach out to each other, to try and understand and help those who have horror in their past. The chains required are chains of love and acceptance, not chains of punishment.
You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.