3

I'm reading Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Chapter 10 talks of Paul D's time as a black slave imprisoned for the attempted murder of his new "owner" as well as his subsequent escape along with his fellow inmates. I'm finding the prisons hard to envision with the help of the description and the inmates' escape even more so. There is also a detail regarding their early-morning routine that I find confusing.

"...he saw the ditches; the one thousand feet of earth—five feet deep, five feet wide, into which wooden boxes had been fitted. A door of bars that you could lift on hinges like a cage opened into three walls and a roof of scrap lumber and red dirt. (1) Two feet of it over his head; three feet of open trench in front of him (2) with anything that crawled or scurried welcome to share that grave calling itself quarters. And there were forty-five more. He was sent there after trying to kill Brandywine, the man schoolteacher sold him to ...

...they shoved him into the box and dropped the cage door down...

All forty-six men woke to rifle shot. All forty-six. Three whitemen walked along the trench unlocking the doors one by one. No one stepped through. When the last lock was opened, the three returned and lifted the bars, one by one. And one by one the blackmen emerged ... Each man bent and waited. The first man picked up the end and threaded it through the loop on his leg iron. He stood up then, and, shuffling a little, brought the chain tip to the next prisoner, who did likewise. As the chain was passed on and each man stood in the other’s place, the line of men turned around, facing the boxes they had come out of... (3)

It rained.

...The men could not work. Chain-up was slow, breakfast abandoned, the two-step became a slow drag over soupy grass and unreliable earth.

It was decided to lock everybody down in the boxes till it either stopped or lightened up so a whiteman could walk, damnit, without flooding his gun and the dogs could quit shivering. The chain was threaded through forty-six loops of the best hand-forged iron in Georgia. (4)

It rained.

In the boxes the men heard the water rise in the trench and looked out for cottonmouths. They squatted in muddy water, slept above it, peed in it. Paul D thought he was screaming; his mouth was open and there was this loud throat-splitting sound—but it may have been somebody else. Then he thought he was crying. Something was running down his cheeks. He lifted his hands to wipe away the tears and saw dark brown slime. Above him rivulets of mud slid through the boards of the roof. (1) When it come down, he thought, gonna crush me like a tick bug. It happened so quick he had no time to ponder. Somebody yanked the chain—once—hard enough to cross his legs and throw him into the mud. He never figured out how he knew—how anybody did—but he did know—he did—and he took both hands and yanked the length of chain at his left, so the next man would know too. The water was above his ankles, flowing over the wooden plank he slept on. And then it wasn’t water anymore. The ditch was caving in and mud oozed under and through the bars.

They waited—each and every one of the forty-six. Not screaming, although some of them must have fought like the devil not to. The mud was up to his thighs and he held on to the bars. Then it came—another yank—from the left this time and less forceful than the first because of the mud it passed through.

It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. One by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping. Some had sense enough to wrap their heads in their shirts, cover their faces with rags, put on their shoes. Others just plunged, simply ducked down and pushed out, fighting up, reaching for air. (5) Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery. They talked through that chain like Sam Morse and, Great God, they all came up. Like the unshriven dead, zombies on the loose, holding the chains in their hands, they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other."

My questions:

  1. The prisons are boxes. The top of the box is the door with the bars, referred to at one point as a "cage door". I would've assumed this to be the "roof" of the box but the roof is apparently something else and made of "scrap lumber and red dirt". Which side of the box is supposed to be the roof? Which ones the three walls?
  2. How is two feet of space above Paul D (who I'm assuming is a normal-sized man) when the box is five feet deep? Is this when he's sitting?
  3. Are the men turning around as they are chaining up? As in, one man threads the chain through his leg iron, walks over to the next man, assumes the next man's position but facing the opposite way? And the resulting line starts a little further from the start of the trench? I think I might be wrong because this sounds like a convoluted process.
  4. I'm assuming the chain is passed through the bars of the prisons' doors at this point. So when the prisoners manage to escape (and haven't yet broken off their chains), do they walk with the doors dragging between them?!
  5. How exactly do the inmates dive "under the bars" to escape when the bars are above them?

1 Answer 1

3
+250

I did not read the book, but you provided a good amount of text - which is good. Not only is the wording "artistic", but it is in English - which lacks words forms - an excellent source of information, when it exists. Word forms = the words change their form with regard to number, gender, case etc...

But let's not digress too much. I just did a "mathematical" analysis of the text, to extract the info below.I cannot guarantee that I "see" what the author "saw".


A door of bars that you could lift on hinges like a cage opened into three walls...

Quite likely, the doors were hinged on the upper edge. The axis of rotation was horizontal. The doors opened by lifting them - a good design, considering that without applying any force, they stayed closed. Also useful if a guardian had to fight a prisoner trying to escape: gravity worked for the advantage of the guardian. Try to picture a cat door installed in the lower part of a normal door. if the cat does not push the cat door, the cat door stays closed.

... and a roof of scrap lumber and red dirt.

I will not explain the three walls, it should be obvious. However, on top of the three walls, the roof was made of (horizontal) lumber pieces, which lumber was then covered with red dirt. In a way, you need to imagine the cells to be actually "under ground".

Above him rivulets of mud slid through the boards of the roof

When the red dirt got wet, it started to slide. The flowing water was carrying the dirt away through the cheap old lumber pieces, inside the cell.


  1. How is two feet of space above

Two feet of it over his head; three feet of open trench in front of him

Well, the word "space" does not exist in the text. The only words which could be "it" are "door", "walls", "roof", "lumber", "dirt". First we exclude the plurals ("it" is singular), then "door" and "walls" cannot be above. The "roof" being 2 feet might not make sense yet, and 2 feet of "scrap lumber" in highly unlikely.

So the only thing "2 feet ... over his head" was the red dirt, covering the lumber. Roughly, 2 feet is the thickness of the roof, but "it" = "red dirt".


The first man picked up the end and threaded it through the loop on his leg iron. He stood up then, and, shuffling a little, brought the chain tip to the next prisoner, who did likewise. As the chain was passed on and each man stood in the other’s place, the line of men turned around, facing the boxes they had come out of

Well, the explanation is good enough only for someone who had the experience with such situations (guardian, prisoner, visitor...). I never had such experience, so here is my guess-work.

However, I imagine that the "loops" were "connected" to the legs of the prisoners like the leashes to the collars for dogs. No matter how much the dog runs around, the leash will be de-twisted automatically. Something like that might have been implemented there.

However, considering that this is a work of literature, and not an engineering book, the author might have missed the fact that turning around was not "comfortable".

Or the guardians did not care if the prisoners tangled the chain (if the de-twisting trick was not "implemented").


The first man picked up the end and threaded it through the loop on his leg iron

and

The chain was threaded through forty-six loops of the best hand-forged iron in Georgia.

and

All forty-six men woke to rifle shot. All forty-six

There were 46 prisoners, each one had a loop for the chain, the chain "linked" all prisoners in one "bundle".


This part requires most imagination and most belief in supernatural whatever. It is possible that the prisoners returned to their cells still wearing the chain. So the chain started in the first cell tied to the first prisoner, then it got out the first cell and in the second cell to the second prisoner, then out the second and into the third and so on. Quite likely, there was enough space around the door for the chain, but not for a person.

Then...

The ditch was caving in and mud oozed under and through the bars.

So the cells lost their integrity, and there was a chance for the prisoners to get out. And getting out was their only chance for survival, since the ditch, and therefore the cells, were flooded with water and (red) mud.


I hope this helps. The text is beautiful artistically, but a technical "disaster" - IMHO. I wish you happy reading, whatever you will decide to read.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.