Nature – Toni Morrison and Christina Rossetti
For centuries, nature in literature has been used as a means to reflect both our society and humanity. Both Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Christina Rossetti’s selected poems use nature as both a tool of oppression and a support, challenging the inequalities and ideals of their times. However, within their contexts – Morrison writing in the 1980s reflecting on the slave trade of the 1860s, and Rossetti writing within the patriarchy of Victorian society – nature is presented in different lights. While Beloved portrays nature as something spiritual, a bond with the African-American community, nature in Goblin Market may be seen to have erotic overtones, depicting the close bond of sisterhood. Regardless, both texts regularly present nature as a symbol of new life and/or death. These texts can also be linked to the use of nature in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, with its reference to death and the fallen woman.
Nature in both texts is often presented as a tool to present oppression. In Beloved’s stream-of-consciousness monologue, the girl on the slave-ship says, “I am falling like the rain is”. This declarative simile uses pathetic fallacy of ‘the rain’ as an allusion to the girl crying as a result of the slaves’ cruel treatment in the slave trade. Morrison may have been influenced here by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, in which he wrote of his experience “I have frequently found myself in tears”. The word ‘falling’ furthermore displays her oppression and the force that is inflicted upon her, the word also connoting to a lack of control that she will have had as a slave (nature used as a tool to reflect this). An alternative view could present the word as being a suggestion to the ‘fallen woman’, as in this monologue the girl is described to have been sexually abused, and would have had her ‘innocence’ taken as a result – “he touches me there”. This can be referenced in the fall of Eve in Genesis. After Eve ‘loses her innocence’ by instead eating the forbidden fruit, God states, “cursed are you above all livestock and wild animals!” Water imagery is also symbolized in Morrison’s use of the stream-of-consciousness format, in which the flowing nature of the text with the absence of punctuation alludes to the fluidity of water. Her, Morrison can be seen to draw on the ‘l’écriture feminine’ style – challenging the master narrative of the white man. It could be argued that she is portraying her pride both as an African-American and as a woman; parties both discriminated against heavily in 1980’s America.
Later in the novel when Sethe, Denver and Beloved go ice-skating, Morrison writes: “over the treacherous ice, nobody saw them falling”. Here, water and seasonal imagery of the word ‘ice’ is used as a metaphor to symbolize the freezing of the plot within the structure of the novel. Water being symbolic of amniotic fluid and thus the mother/child bond in Beloved (such as the imagery of Sethe giving birth: “there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb”) also could symbolize the breakdown of relationships between the three characters, the water now being frozen. Nature as water is therefore a tool of oppression that highlights the destruction of this bond and thus Sethe’s happiness. The word ‘treacherous’ connotes to nature as untrustworthy, whilst the word ‘falling’ connotes a pain inflicted on the characters by nature. The declarative ‘nobody saw them falling’ suggests the isolation of the family, ‘nobody’ connoting loneliness. Morrison may have been alluding to the isolation of slaves in the salve trade. A possible influence could have been Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which she wrote, “I felt so desolate and alone”. The word ‘falling’ likewise could symbolize the breakdown of family relationships through the oppressive tool of nature. This argument is supported by author Liz Sands, who says, “’nobody saw them falling’ refers to the downfall that the family is about to experience”. It is true to say that this point in the novel is only the beginning of the family’s downfall, and the way in which nature is made a tool to inflict pain could be seen to foreshadow true disintegration.
In Rossetti’s She Sat and Sang Always – a sonnet depicting the female speaker’s relationship with nature – nature is also presented as a tool of oppression through imagery of water. In the phrase “my tears were swallowed by the sea”, the oppressive personification of the sea ‘swallowing’ presents the speaker’s pain concealed by nature. This violent imagery of the sea and the suggested pathetic fallacy of a storm reflect this oppression, as well as the sinister sibilance of ‘swallowed by the sea’. Alternatively, from a feminist viewpoint, Rossetti could be seen to be criticizing the treatment of inequalities of women in nineteenth-century society, nature therefore symbolizing the violence and ill treatment by male supremacists. Presenting the speaker at face value as weak, along with use of trochaic rhyme often found in traditional sonnet form could be seen to mock the master narrative and the male critics within the Victorian patriarchy. Such female writers as Rossetti were often criticized by such writers as Edward Fitzgerald, who said, “[female writers] only devote themselves to what men do much better”. Rossetti’s rebellion against such ideologies and criticism was radical for a woman of her time, and subsequently is often considered to have been a ‘proto-feminist’.
In Rossetti’s Goblin Market – a poem depicting the close bond between two sisters – nature is also presented as a tool of oppression through imagery of trees. In the line “her tree of life droop’d from the root”, Laura is presented as being at one with nature through her body and health being symbolized as a tree. Connotations of ‘droop’d’ create imagery of ill health and death, at the hands of the goblins that fed her the poisonous fruit. This is highlighted also by the assonance of ‘droop’d from the root, the ‘oo’ sound being connotative of pain and struggle. The ‘tree of life’ could also be seen as a symbol of the mystic and of spirituality. It could be argued that Rossetti’s background as a devout Catholic could have been a personal influence for this, trees being an important symbol of faith in religion. In Genesis, for example, the Garden of Eden’s tree of life is known as “the tree of knowledge and good and evil”. Such spirituality is fitting with Rossetti’s use of the ‘fairytale form’ in Goblin Market. From a feminist viewpoint, this poem could again be a criticism of the ill treatment of women in Victorian society. Contrary to this same perspective in She Sat and Sang Always however, nature in the form of the ‘tree of life’ would instead be seen as a female symbol, and thus a tool to present oppression by being victimized at the hand of man (in this context portrayed as monstrous ‘goblins’. The fairy tale form in this scenario would be employed to disguise Rossetti’s criticism of the patriarchy; the controversial opinion of a woman in her time would have been viewed as radical. Within the ‘tree of life’ imagery in the Garden of Eden, the fruit in Goblin Market could be interpreted as the forbidden fruit. The Goblins (portrayed then as Satan), use the tree of knowledge as a tool to oppress Laura, hence her ‘drooping’, just as Eve is punished for eating the forbidden fruit through expulsion from Eden – Genesis: “when you eat from [the tree] you will surely die”. K. McGowran supports this argument by saying, “the imagery of fruit [in Goblin Market] is biblical, recalling the temptations of the Garden of Eden”. A recalling of temptations is true; through Laura giving into the temptation of the fruit, Rossetti could be criticizing how women give into the pressure of ideals of the patriarchy.
The use of nature as a tool to present oppression by both Morrison and Rossetti can be linked to that by Tennyson in the Lady of Shalott – a poem depicting the fall of a woman at the hands of love, especially through imagery of decay and of water and trees. “Willows whiten” alludes to ill health, color imagery of white symbolizing death; much like Rossetti does with tree imagery in Goblin Market with the ‘tree of life drooping’ – as Willows also are noted for their drooped branches. Connotations of the Willow Tree’s alternate names also present links with Beloved. Willows often referred to as ‘weeping’ alludes to the tree crying, as a result of the oppression nature physically displays. This draws a parallel with that of the water imagery in Beloved and “I am falling like the rain is”. Similarly, Morrison also employs color imagery of white and subsequently seasonal imagery of winter when Sethe, Denver and Beloved go ‘ice-skating’. Whereas Tennyson uses nature as a tool to present oppression by being victimised, Morrison symbolizes nature itself as the oppressor.
In contrast, nature is also presented in both texts as supportive and nurturing. In Beloved, Amy describes the scar on Sethe’s back: “[it’s] a Chokecherry Tree…full of sap”. This metaphor presents nature as protective of Sethe as a result of her abuse as a slave, and perhaps could be referenced to the healing powers of ‘mother nature’. Through nature, the juxtaposition of the word ‘chokecherry’ displays both violence and peace – ‘choke’ connoting to pain and ‘cherry’ having connotations with innocence. The repetition of the harsh ‘ch’ sound could also hint to a painful past. Here, Morrison could be employing nature to present the beauty that can come as a result of suffering, and links to the theme of hope in the novel. Much like in Goblin Market, trees are often seen as spiritual in African cultures and can be viewed as a bond between God and man. As M. Bonnet says: “trees…play a crucial role in African religion”. This could imply that Sethe is close to and protected by God, as well as Morrison expressing how God embraces African-Americans. This could be a belief influenced by her religious upbringing. In an interview with the Guardian, E. Brockes writes, “at 12…[Morrison] joined the Catholic church”. Alternatively, ‘full of sap’ within the scar’s lexical representation as a tree could be read as a metaphor for Sethe’s blood and vivacity, the superlative ‘full’ paralleling the character’s overflowing of love and emotion that the beauty of nature evokes. Alternatively, this overflow could represent Sethe’s emotions and love being intense to a negative effect, alluding back to the murder of her baby and when Paul D. subsequently describes her love as “too thick”. This critical argument is supported in an interview with Toni Morrison, in which was said “Sethe has an excess of maternal feeling…such excesses are not good”. Nature could then be seen instead to present Sethe as dangerous.
Later in the novel when Paul D is guided to safety by a Cherokee woman, Morrison writes, “follow the tree flowers”. This imperative gives nature in the form of trees a sense of power in helping Paul D, whilst also creating an image of authority for the Cherokee, often viewed as a symbol of spirituality and as a bond between man and the natural world, suggesting that she has a control over nature. In a video interview with Jerry Wolfe, an elder in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it was said, “we have always looked down on the soil because it furnishes everything”. Alternatively, the imperative and the word ‘follow’ could allude to the story of the Three Wise Men guided by nature, in the form of a star, to salvation: “we saw [Jesus’s] star as it rose and have come to worship him”. This in turn would link the Cherokee directly to the role of God. Salvation within the context of Beloved would be Paul D’s freedom from slavery, nature providing such freedom and support. This positive relationship between man and nature can be supported again by M. Bonnet, who says, “[trees] are even worshipped by some tribes as God himself in his immanent aspect”. Morrison arguably could be reflecting her African heritage’s beliefs of nature and religion existing as one by portraying a similar culture of Cherokee Indians in her novel, as well as the relevance of both parties having been discriminated against in twentieth-century North America. In support of nature being guidance for Paul D is the use of ‘trees’ as a symbol of knowledge, linking back again to Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Use of seasonal imagery and the word ‘flowers’ also has connotations with new life and purity, following the life cycle of plants, again highlighting the theme of hope for the future in the novel.
In Rossetti’s Goblin Market, nature is also presented as supportive and nurturing through imagery of fruit. When Lizzie attempts to save her sister Laura, she says, “suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you”. The imperative ‘suck my juices’ highlights a strong bond between the sisters, ‘fruits’ suggesting that it is nature that has allowed Lizzie to save Laura and has thus brought them together. At face value, the imagery of ‘fruit’ presents nature as a nurturing and healing power, the word often having connotations of nutrition and luxury. Alternatively, ‘suck my juices’ can be seen to have underlying erotic themes, perhaps alluding to lesbianism. This is heightened by the phrase preceding this: “hug me, kiss me, suck my juices”, and could be argued to take the form of sexual metaphor with the emphasized words ‘hug’, ‘kiss’ and ‘suck’ in a trochaic form. Use of asyndetic tripling here could be seen to bring similar passion into the text. According to ideology of the nineteenth century, homosexuality between two females would be connotative of the Victorian concept of the ‘fallen woman’. For this, Rossetti may have been influenced by the artwork of her pre-Raphaelite brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and more specifically his paintings of fallen women. In his piece Sibylla Palmifera is painted Fanny Cornforth, a former prostitute before her modeling for Rossetti. This combined with her red hair and clothing connoting of danger present her as the ‘fallen woman’, as well as the nontraditional nature of her directing her gaze forward, abandoning the Victorian norm of the ‘male gaze’. This radical depiction of woman may have inspired Christina Rossetti to present the radicalization of women in Goblin Market as protest against the patriarchy, nature as an advocate for this. Nature as the ‘fruit’, along with use of the ‘fairy-tale’ form would disguise these criticisms, as well as the radical themes of the text itself; this would have been considered unacceptable for a woman of Rossetti’s times. This argument is supported by L. Scholl, who says, “Rossetti steers away from equating female sexuality with sinfulness, which in itself is a radical move”. It is true that her disguise using the ‘master narrative’ is radical.
At the end of Goblin Market, Rossetti writes, “and new buds with new day/Open’d of cup-like lilies on the stream”. Seasonal imagery of ‘new buds…open’d’ uses nature in the form of flowers to represent new life and rebirth, ‘buds’ symbolic of a beginning. Colour imagery of white implied by the simile ‘open’d of cup-like lilies’ also connotes beauty and purity. Alternatively, the imagery of ‘lilies’ could allude to the danger and damnation of the sisters after they have sinned, lilies often being symbolic of death. This can be referenced in Leviticus, where it is said, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman”. The repetition of ‘new’ also highlights the theme of rebirth and healing that is arguably associated with a sexual awakening, as well as the enjambment between the two lines, perhaps a visual representation of progression. It is displayed and advocated through nature that the two sisters’ relationship is pure and of beauty, controversial regarding Rossetti’s allusion to homosexuality. This ideology of the era is supported by a report by the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which it was said, “people born in the Victorian age were…frigid about sexual matters”. Alternatively, the ‘bud’ could symbolize nature protecting the two sisters from the Victorian patriarchy, who might criticize their relationship. However, as the text continues, nature displays through the buds ‘opening’ that the sisters are not ashamed of their radicalism; nor, similarly in this context, is Rossetti uncomfortable about writing on the subject, challenging the reserved master narrative. Water imagery of the sisters’ rebirth ‘on the stream’ presents nature as supporting the characters’ new identity; water being symbolic of journeys suggests nature is driving their new beginning. The presence of water as an advocate could alternatively represent rebirth in the form of baptism and cleansing. Rossetti here would be implying that homosexuality should be accepted by religion – another controversial image. In reference to seasonal imagery, B. Sullivan argues, “nature’s repetitive cycles are stressed by references to the turning of the seasons”. It could be true that such inclusion of the seasons in Goblin Market could account to Rossetti suggesting that the cycle of the natural world is unchanged by sexuality and gender.
The presentation of nature as supportive and nuturing by both Morrison and Rossetti can be linked to that by Tennyson in the Lady of Shalott. When the Lady of Shalott gives into the temptation to pursue the handsome knight, Tennyson writes, “she saw the water-lily bloom”. The lily ‘blooming’ metaphorically foreshadows both the temporary pleasure and death, lilies being symbolic of the latter. This is similar to an alternative viewpoint in Goblin Market – where the ‘opening’ of the lily foreshadows damnation of the two sisters. The two writers also make use of water imagery. Whereas Goblin Market presents journeys of water as a transition towards new life, both Tennyson and Morrison present water as providing a journey towards danger – the Lady of Shalott floating along the river towards death, and the girl on the slave ship floating towards a life of slavery. This is also employed similarly by Rossetti in She Sat and Sang Alway, where the sea is presented as an image of violence and oppression. ‘She saw’ could also imply that the Lady of Shalott made a conscious decision to give into the temptation that ultimately led to her downfall. Such a temptation of knowledge in the poem could be linked to the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. The use of biblical imagery could link this directly to Beloved, where Paul D following the tree flowers could be implied imagery of the star of Bethlehem in the bible. This would support the notion that nature within religion is frequently given the power to advise man.
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