It would require a pretty good scholar in arithmetic to tell how mpes he had inflicted, and how many birch-rods he had worn out, during all that time, in his fatherly tenderness for his pupils. . . . Moreover, he had written a Latin Accidence, which was used in schools more than half a century after his death; so that the good old man, even in his grave, was still the cause of trouble and stripes to idle schoolboys.—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair
Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white schoolteacher.—Toni Morrison, Beloved
More than One Reader of Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) has detected allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne in the story of Sethe's "crime" and its aftermath. Because of the way Sethe seeks forgiveness [End Page 527] yet seems unwilling to relinquish her guilt, a critic remarks that she "appea[s] to be something of a black Hester Prynne" (Otten 91). I will argue that Morrison's Sethe is indeed something of a Hester Prynne, but one that subverts Hawthorne's text by creating marked differences between the characters. Rather than focusing upon the similar themes of innocence and guilt that emerge in Beloved and The Scarlet Letter (1850), I will examine the relationship between these two novels as part of a sustained debate over American cultural values. In the nineteenth century, Hawthorne spoke to and for African Americans, asserting his authority as a man of letters and a privileged citizen. Although some African Americans began to exercise their own power as writers within the slave narrative genre, their voices continued to be silenced in both the political arena and America's literary canon. Morrison writes in response to Hawthorne, challenging his politics while claiming her own authority as an African-American writer.
In Beloved, we can read an allegory for the process of literary canon formation in the relationship between Sethe and schoolteacher.2 Schoolteacher stands as the quintessential figure of white male authority, wielding the power of the word as well as the whip. While his students attempt to define Sethe in their notebooks, he tells them to "'put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up'" (193). Sethe's assertion of her humanity earns her the scars that form a chokecherry tree on her back; when she protests the way that schoolteacher has allowed his nephews to milk her—as if she were a cow—he orders them to whip Sethe back into silence. Her body is literally inscribed with this mark of white male dominance, but Sethe ultimately defies schoolteacher's authority by murdering her own child. She kills Beloved so that "no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of the paper" (251). Reaffirming her own humanity as well as her children's, Sethe denies schoolteacher the right to "possess" her family as slaves.
Sethe's story subtly comments upon that of America's early black women writers, depicting their struggle to claim legitimacy as authors. Schoolteacher, on the other hand, represents only a more extreme version of the formidable opposition that black women authors faced from a literary establishment with both racial and sexual prejudices. While Mae G. Henderson has compared schoolteacher to Hawthorne's Surveyor Pue,3 it may be more accurate to liken him specifically to Hawthorne himself, whose politics and aesthetic principles reflected such biases. Consider Morrison's description of [End Page 528] the attitude white nineteenth-century American writers such as Hawthorne took toward African Americans: "One could write about them, but there was never the danger of their 'writing back.' Just as one could speak to them without fear of their 'talking back.' One could even observe them, hold them in prolonged gaze, without encountering the risk of being observed, viewed, or judged in return" ("Unspeakable" 13). Morrison's argument in this and other essays such as Playing in the Dark (1992) is that America's literary history and its history of slavery cannot be...