Reading at the Cultural Interface: The Corn Symbolism of 'Beloved.'(Theory, Culture and Criticism)

By Harding, Wendy; Martin, Jacky | MELUS, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Reading at the Cultural Interface: The Corn Symbolism of 'Beloved.'(Theory, Culture and Criticism)


Harding, Wendy, Martin, Jacky, MELUS


If the borders defining American literary studies have been redrawn over the past two decades to include works representative of a plurality of races, genders, classes, and ethnicities, the theoretical issues involved in reading the newly emergent texts are still in the process of being articulated.(1) The new American literature is being read in a variety of ways, not all of which do justice to its rich multiplicity. Critical methods developed in former years to demonstrate the homogeneity of America letters are still practiced, with the result that the differences of new texts are sometimes overlooked in the interest of emphasizing their universal features. More promising are alternative approaches that address not only the textual diversity of the revised American canon but also the multiplicity within individual texts.(2) Taking a passage from Toni Morrison's Beloved as our example, this essay will present a concept and a practice that endeavor to respond to the text's complexity.(3)

Morrison's novels have been characterized by both admirers and detractors as eccentric, enigmatic, mysterious, or indeterminate. While she admits in interviews to being fascinated by problems without resolutions (fate 130), Morrison also expresses a longing for comprehension from her audience. In 1981 she complained, "I have yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it. I don't care if the critic likes or dislikes it. I would just like to feel less isolated" (LeClair 29). The writer's desire for comprehension and the perplexity of some readers indicate a block in the reading process which we intend to investigate. Some of Beloved's early reviewers read Morrison from the dominant perspective, producing uncomprehending or hostile evaluations. In this view both the subject and style of the novel represent a serious lapse in taste.(4) These evaluations generally refuse close textual analysis and offer reductive summaries of events. Yet even by critics who read more attentively and sympathetically, Morrison's art is often mistaken for something more conventional. We will sketch out the problem empirically by examining the passage in which Sethe and Paul D, having just made love for the first time, think back to their earliest sexual experiences at Sweet Home. This passage, which we quote here in its entirety, centers on the cornfield where Sethe and Halle make love for the first time:

Sethe made a dress on the sly and Halle hung his hitching rope from a nail on

the wall of her cabin. And there on top of a mattress on top of the dirt

floor of the cabin they coupled for the third time, the first two having

been in the tiny cornfield Mr. Garner kept because it was a crop animals

could use as well as humans. Both Halle and Sethe were under the impression

that they were hidden. Scrunched down among the stalks they couldn't see

anything, including the corn tops waving over their heads and visible to

everyone else.

Sethe smiled at her and Halle's stupidity. Even the crows knew and came

to look. Uncrossing her ankles, she managed not to laugh aloud.

The jump, thought Paul D, from a calf to a girl wasn't all that mighty.

Not the leap Halle believed it would be. And taking her in the corn rather

than her quarters, a yard away from the cabins of the others who had lost

out, was a gesture of tenderness. Halle wanted privacy for her and got a

public display. Who could miss a ripple in a cornfield on a quiet cloudless

day? He, Sixo and both of the Pauls sat under Brother pouring water from a

gourd over their heads, and through eyes streaming with well water, they

watched the confusion of tassels in the field below. It had been hard, hard

sitting there erect as dogs, watching corn stalks dance at noon. The water

running over their heads made it worse.

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