Metal With Mettle

Jason R. Guercio*

            Throughout the course of her deeply emotional slave narrative, Beloved, Toni Morrison utilizes the common substance metal as a symbolic representation of a number of slavery-related concepts within the context of the characters involved. Paul D, one of the novel's noted protagonists and both a former slave and prisoner, provides the human palate for the most significant of Morrison's markedly humanistic, slavery-entrenched symbols written in "the music of hand-forged iron" (108). The author uses iron and tin as the vehicle for metaphors relative to Paul D, imbuing the symbols with metal's very essence. Morrison carefully lends highly metallic qualities to her metal symbols and their affiliated themes. In addition, the author's craftsmanship of her piece requires little external metal-related knowledge from the reader, and instead draws upon elementary knowledge of the substance in creating the symbols. The fact that the metal symbols require such a simple analysis adds to their lasting literary luster, as the substance in the basic element contains a wealth of characteristics that add to the emotional might of the symbolism. Metal, by its very nature exists as cold, hard, rigid, and uncommonly heavy, and as such Morrison's symbols relative to Paul D, i.e. "the bit" (69), the "tobacco tin" (72), and the "hand-forged chain," (107) suggest these four characteristics with little explanation or related imagery. In great degree the symbols created by Morrison suggest such qualities; however, four other characteristics, namely metal's constraining, unyielding, highly unbreakable nature, and its connective strength, serve the author in exploring the thematic elements inherent in Paul D's slave experience. Slavery, emotional repression, and the overall black experience take on their cold features, glinting in the wide-open paring initiated by Morrison's powerful symbolism.

Morrison writes candidly of "the iron bit" (70) in describing Paul D's slave experience, and carefully details the horrific nature of its use as a torture device. Marilyn Sanders Mobley writes of Paul's "personal stories of enduring a "bit" (69) in his mouth – the barbaric symbol of silence and oppression," (196) outlining the item's cold, constraining capabilities. Morrison uses the symbol of the bit, carefully woven into the novel's interchange between Sethe and Paul D, to represent Paul D's slave experience, and, taken on an allegorical level, to represent also the slave experience in general. Her introduction of the bit into Paul's "rememories" ushers in comment on the iron's structural qualities, i.e. "how offended the tongue is, held down by iron," (71) indicating the metal's constraining, unyielding nature. The author's inclusion of rich imagery in explaining the bit to the reader aids in delineating the iron's less obvious characteristics aforementioned. She writes of "The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back," (71) a reminder of the metal's unyielding, thoroughly rigid conformation and related effects. Immediately following, Morrison affirms "Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye," (71) thus reinforcing the concept of metal's hard, unyielding nature. Essentially, the metal symbol of the bit becomes the slave experience through the shared characteristics of metal. Rigidity of the slave experience, represented by the metal in the bit, with Paul's "own mouth jammed full of iron" (96) earns its own symbolic explication, as does slavery's physical and mental constraint, itself discussed by Trudier Harris as "confining them in bits" (330). Even more importantly, the context of Paul's "licking iron" (72) generates the symbol's analogous context with slavery, as Paul literally cannot speak to Halle, whom he discovers freshly delusional as a result of witnessing Sethe's rape. The animalistic nature of slavery reveals itself in the metal bit's confining nature, with Paul kept from communication with his friend and forced into inhuman silence by the rigidity of the cold metal. The bit renders Paul incapable of sharing his friend's grief, itself brought about by the nephews of schoolteacher, themselves representative of slavery.

Like "the bit," (69) Morrison's replacement of Paul D's "red heart" (72-73) with a "tobacco tin lodged in his chest" (113) symbolizes an aspect of the character's psychological make-up, tied directly to his slave experience. Morrison replaces Paul's heart, the age-old symbol of the central bastion of the human emotional system, with the "tobacco tin," an item capable of emotional storage under its lid rusted shut. Paul's "tin" (72) symbolizes repression of his memories, and the feelings thus generated, from slavery, where "It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest" (113). Paul's action of repressing his memories, a theme central to Beloved, itself highlights slavery's disastrous emotional effects, and the "tin" responsible for the storage effectively symbolizes both the memory repression relative to the slave experience, and Paul's heart, replaced by a metallic prosthesis rapt with implications. Like "the bit," (69) the "tobacco tin" (72) exists as cold and rigid, directly linking the dispassionate nature of memory repression to coldness and emotive rigidity, and "heartlessness" in its truest sense. Further, Morrison's most potent characterization of memory repression and the loss of one's heart with respect to the "tobacco tin" (72) concerns the constraining nature of and difficulty in breaking the cycle of emotive repression and loss. She carefully details the "lid rusted shut" (73) on the tin, signifying the bottling up of Paul D's emotions, and further attests "By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open" (113). Herein Morrison employs the difficulty in breaking metal, i.e. its strength, to delineate the stifling nature of sentient repression. Kiz Leppert mentions, "The years of torment at Sweet Home had caused him to guard his heart. Guard his heart to the point that Paul D considered it a rusted shut tobacco tin" (9). Further extending the idea of metal's seeming unbreakability, Morrison creates Paul D as feeling "that his past was safe in his "tin heart" until he was forced to go back to their final days at Sweet Home." (Luss, 1) Paul's tin contains, constrains, and safeguards the loose canon of his repressed feelings, and, by virtue of its very metal essence, heightens the implications of the suppression it represents.

Paul's stint as a prisoner in Alfred, Georgia defines its symbolic value vis-à-vis "one thousand feet of the best hand-forged chain in Georgia" (107). The chain, vehicle of the guards in caging the forty-six prisoners, obviously consists solely of metal, yet in this case, heightens its symbolic value because its iron links are "hand-forged" (107). The chain symbolizes both the all-encompassing repressive coldness of the black experience in the antebellum period, in addition to the institution's unwanted side effect of creating a common ground for collectivism among slaves (in this case slaves convicted of crimes). The chain, like the simplicity of blackness, constrains the prisoners in an unyielding fashion; wherein, the guards "fastened the iron around his ankles and clamped his wrists as well" (106). The iron in the chain, "hand-forged," (107) (repeated four times by the author) represents the fact that slavery's execution stems from mankind, thereby connecting the prisoners as the black experience connected African-Americans pre-Civil War. The connective nature of metal, the efficiency of welding as a pertinent example, manifests itself in the chain "threaded through forty-six loops of the best hand-forged iron in Georgia…The chain that held them would save all or none…" (110). Yet even more dynamic stands the conjunctive conformation of the black experience of slavery and oppression, symbolized by the chain. The author details the connective, hence metallic, nature of the chain in affirming that a single prisoner dared not attempt to break away alone, for "all forty-six, would be yanked by the chain that bound them and no telling who or how many would be killed. A man could risk his own life, but not his brother's" (109). The metal that makes up the chain, both connective and constraining contemporarily, imparts upon the black experience thus symbolized both such highly metallic qualities.

Metal's very composition denotes it as an inherently powerful symbol relative to the main themes that it symbolizes within the context of Morrison's novel. The metal in "the bit," (69) and Paul D's slave experience share a cold, hard, rigid, unyielding, and most significantly, constraining framework. The metal in the "tobacco tin," (72) and the repression of Paul D's memories and feelings share a cold, rigid, constraining, and most importantly virtually unbreakable construction. The metal in "the chain," (109) and the black experience as a whole share elements of coldness, constraint, and connectivity. Therein Morrison's metal symbols draw their strength; the similitude of the pairs, each symbol and its intangible thematic representation coupled, generates their overt literary authority, as well as their literary beauty and timelessness.

Works Cited:

Harris, Trudier. "Escaping Slavery but Not Its Images."
    Toni Morrison Critical Perspectives: Past and Present.
     New York: Amistad Press, 1993. 330-332.

Leppert, Kiz. "Unceremoniously Buried: Toni Morrison's Beloved." Internet. (April 3, 2000).

Luss, Limor et al. "Rememory." Internet. (April 3, 2000).

Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. "A Different Remembering: Memory, History,
     and Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved."
    Toni Morrison: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom.
     Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. 196.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved.
     New York: Penguin Publishers, 1987.

*Jason R. Guercio was an eleventh-grade student at The Community School of Naples at the time of the writing of this essay, April 5, 2000.

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Essay copyright ©2000 Jason R. Guercio. Published with express written permission of the author.

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