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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