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Hot Milk for the Soul

A New Critical Perspective on Images of Milk in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Sharon Olds' The Gold Cell

Milk plays a central role in the prizing winning novel, Beloved, and the book of poems, The Gold Cell. Toni Morrison and Sharon Olds use the image of milk throughout their works as images of love, purity, and nourishment. The white color of milk parallels the use of white as a sign of purity. Milk nourishes children and at the same time conveys nurturing affection and love. The two works juxtapose milk with immorality, suggesting that milk and the love, purity, and sustenance that it represents can be scarce and other times impure.

Precious and limited, milk serves as heat and nourishment in the cold world. Sethe warms "a pan of milk and stirred cane syrup and vanilla into it," to give to Denver and Beloved (Morrison 175). Her love and maternal instincts nourish and warm her children. This is natural and "things were here they ought to be" (Morrison 176). Love and the milk of life should not be rushed. The scene is calm and serene as the family prepares to rest and go to bed. No memories or cries of hungry children impinge on the warm peace that pervades the scene. Warm love and milk chase coldness out of the house. The cold but nonetheless charged stories of the crimes and the painful journeys are for the moment forgotten, and the family enjoys the peace and nourishment of the hot, sweet milk. Served just before bed, the warm, sweet, and nourishing liquid creates a secure atmosphere with the large, comforting shadow of Sethe looking over her children. Not simply just a liquid for sustenance of the biochemical reactions of the human body, milk serves as a reminder of motherly love and of Sethe's shadow, protecting her children. Milk manifests the maternal love and protection which enables her children to grow in peace.

The calm environment created by affection and milk can be lost when amoral influences are introduced. Sharon Olds parallels the introduction of impurity when she juxtaposes milk and cold iron in her poem, "Alcatraz." Still, the persona comments that her "badness" could overpower her, obviating the white purity of milk. For the persona, there is no partially soiled purity; once she spills her milk, her purity of thought, "Ala / Cazam, the iron doors would slam ..." (Olds 28). Then Olds juxtaposes the nourishing milk which comes from a loving mother with the coldness of iron doors. Describing her hypothetical inmates, she comments that they are all men because "only men went to Alcatraz," men who had "spilled their milk one time to many, / not been able to curb their thoughts ..." (Olds 28). The thoughts of the inmates had drifted into the immorality of pimps, whorehouses, and strip joints. The lust and desire evoked by these establishments lead men to squander and "spill" their life-producing milk on cold impersonal images. Moreover, the inmates have voluntarily given up their purity for their solitary pleasures. They give up their potentially warm and nourishing milk and release their semen into the cold world all while obsessing over the pleasures of false love. The image of spilling milk underscores the loss of purity through false images of love, resulting in the slow drift to lust and obsession.

Placing the single cup of nourishing, loving, and pure milk in the center of walls of protection, Olds emphasizes the pricelessness of milk and the protection it requires. The phrase "spilled milk" suggests a potential parent who holds the coveted liquid which can create and nourish a young child. When the milk and the white purity which it represents spill, they cannot be reclaimed. Thus they require protection and care. The final lines of the poem state, "there at the / center, the glass of milk and the guard's eyes upon me as I reached out for it" (Olds 28). The eyes of the guard watch and will cast judgment if the milk is spilt. That purity and wholesomeness of milk are given to the persona in the most central and most protected place, physically and emotionally. It is not earned or innate but presented as a gift that can be lost or spilled. Safeguarding the priceless gift, the persona holds her milk surrounded by circle after circle of protection, keeping the milk clean, pure, and able to nourish. Olds places a guard watching over the milk and sets the single cup of milk in the center of the many barriers surrounding Alcatraz to underline that milk and its love, nourishment, and purity must be protected.

In Beloved, Sethe attempts to reserve and protect her milk for her own children so she may nourish them. "Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children" (Morrison 200). She does not want to squander her milk on the sustenance of others' children, but she wants to retain it for her children. Yet, her masters use her slave body as a factory for the cold, mechanical mass production of "warm" nourishing milk. Neither a machine nor a factory, Sethe must provide her single cup of milk and quench the white children first. Her milk, which was rightfully her child's, furnishes the wants of other babies. Used like a cow, she often had so little milk left for her Beloved that she had to sneak to the back of the stables to give it to her baby. Her masters reduce her to a small animal that must scurry about to collect food for its young. Morrison impresses the maternal determination to protect the nourishing, pure, and loving milk for children upon Sethe.

Exploring the idea of protected and pure milk as nourishment from which a child can arise, Olds introduces the threat of tainting milk. In her poem "Why My Mother Made Me," the mother gives her own cream, the uppermost and richest part of milk, which becomes her new child. However, that gift of cream passes through the "sour steel grater" of her father. As the cream which forms the persona passes through the grater, it becomes tainted with the qualities of the other parent. Yet the tainting leaves the basic underlying formulation of the rich gifts from the mother untouched. The tainting, or flavoring, gives the "cheese" some character by adding impurities which pervade all the cream. The result is the child who becomes "a big woman, stained, sour, and sharp, / but with that milk at the center of my nature" (Olds 33). The "meat" or center of womanhood, the cream, has not changed. Only the character of that woman has changed. Thus the line, "Maybe ... what she always wanted, / my father as a woman," correlates the cream with the center of femaleness and the pervading personality of her father. In a sense, the milk has been transformed into a different form by tainting it with impurities.

On another track, Morrison explores the issue of the loss of milk, and Sethe demonstrates the determination and maternal instinct to nourish children. Corresponding to the loss of the ability to nourish, the loss of milk prevents the mother from providing nourishment, love, and protection to her children. When men assault Sethe, her replies underscore her most significant loss; "they took my milk" (Morrison 11). The loss of milk impairs Sethe's ability to nourish her family. Trying to take joy in baking the bread to nourish her family, Sethe is determined to provide sustenance for her young. Because of her impaired ability to give affection and tenderness for her child, Sethe feels miserable eating the burnt biscuits that she baked. The bread, the work of laborers, cannot fully replace the naturally occurring nourishment from Sethe's breasts. Although bread's ability to nourish is equivalent, the affection, love, and purity are lacking. The loss of her natural ability to nourish, love, and protect her family distresses Sethe. Yet, the loss of milk does not stop Sethe, driven by her maternal instincts, from trying to nourish and sustain her family.

On the other end of the spectrum, Morrison examines the obsession with giving milk and maternal love, creating a limiting paradox where the love for a child becomes tainted. Denver later notes that Beloved attracts the attention, love, and milk of her mother. "Beloved lapped devotion like cream" (Morrison 243). The cream of the milk, the richest part of milk, manifests the devotion of Beloved, thus implying that little is left for her other daughter Denver. Sethe places more and more energy into the reincarnation of her lost daughter Beloved. Her love and powers to love and nourish are, like her milk, limited. Beloved seems to be getting more of that devotion than Denver. However, that same cream which nourishes Beloved originated from the same obsession with protecting Sethe's children and keeping them safe and happy. Morrison illuminates the gray line between natural motherhood and the obsession with nourishing and protecting the child when Beloved is again killed. Sethe explains that she does not want her children to suffer her woes as a slave. The maternal instinct to protect and thereby keep her children pure, become paradoxically entangled with the killing of the child, thus tainting the cream and white purity of milk.

Further stretching to the outer limits of love and its analogy with milk, Morrison directly juxtaposes milk with blood, thereby tainting it. Sethe kills her daughter Beloved, and thus blood is spread all over the scene. After she is prevented from killing her baby daughter, Denver, she tries to nurse her baby, implicitly emphasizing her motherly love for her baby. Yet, Baby Suggs, the proprietor of 124, is outraged at the sight of Sethe trying feed her baby while blood covered her nipples. Rage stems from nourishing Denver with milk tainted with red blood. That blood from the murder of Beloved formed the pool in which Baby Suggs falls. Just as the sour grater tainted the cream which formed the person in "Why My Mother Made Me," the blood from infanticide taints Sethe's milk. In a way, Denver is feeding on the horrid crime. Suggs tries to prevent the tainting of Denver's purity but fails. The maternal love, manifested by white pure milk, becomes red with blood as extreme circumstances pressure Sethe to make the dreaded decision that death is the only remaining option for the protection of her child's purity.

As milk takes on the roles of purity and the nurturing affection of mothers, the parents take on critical responsibilities. Their purity and nurturing love influences their child directly, and even deviations induce manifold changes within a child. Through the images of milk, the authors emphasize the barriers present to raise a child in the sustaining and loving fold of the family. Impure thoughts and desires tempt those charged with the rearing of children. Judgment convolutes our senses of protection and sends us to the borders of sanity. Each human vice eats away at the protection around the precious milk and each human flaw tries to stop the delivery of pure, loving, and nourishing hot milk to the soul of each child.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Plume, 1987.

Olds, Sharon. The Gold Cell. 14th printing. New York, Knopf, 1987.