Academic journal article Style

Sethe's Choice: 'Beloved' and the Ethics of Reading

Academic journal article Style

Sethe's Choice: 'Beloved' and the Ethics of Reading

Article excerpt

Morrison's Unusual Guidance

Now, too late, [Stamp Paid] understood [Baby Suggs]. The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn't count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe's rough choice. (180)

"Sethe's rough choice," her decision to kill her daughter rather than have her become a slave at the plantation they called Sweet Home, is at once the most stunning and most important event in Morrison's novel. Stunning for obvious reasons: how can the love of a mother for her child lead her to murder the child? Important not only because the temporal, psychological, structural, and thematic logic of the novel flows from that event but also because Morrison's treatment of it presents her audience with a difficult and unusual ethical problem. In order to appreciate the events of the present time of the narrative - 1873 - we need to know what happened in the woodshed behind 124 Bluestone Rd. on an August afternoon in 1855. In order to understand the characters of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved in 1873, we need to know that on that afternoon Sethe reached for the handsaw before schoolteacher could reach for her or her children. In order to come to terms with the novel's progression, affective power, and thematic import, we need to come to ethical terms with Sethe's choice to pull the handsaw across the neck of her daughter.(1) The problem arises because Morrison stops short of taking any clear ethical stand on Sethe's rough choice, but instead presents it as something that she, like Baby Suggs, can neither approve nor condemn. This essay will seek to explore the ethics of reading Sethe's choice by (1) contextualizing Morrison's treatment of it in relation to the typical relation between implied author and audience in ethically complex texts; (2) analyzing the narrative strategies Morrison uses to offer some limited guidance to our ethical judgment without clearly signaling her own assessment; and (3) examining the consequences of that treatment for our relation to Sethe and, ultimately, to Morrison herself; and (4) considering the implications of Morrison's treatment for any larger conclusions we might draw about the ethical ,dimension of reading narrative. Let me begin by sketching my approach to the ethics of reading.

I regard the ethical dimension of reading as an inextricable part of approaching narrative as rhetoric. To approach narrative as rhetoric is to understand narrative as a rhetorical act: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose that something happened. This rhetorical act involves a multi-leveled communication from author to audience, one that involves the audience's intellect, emotions, psyche, and values. Furthermore, these levels interact with each other. Our values and those set forth by the implied author affect our judgments of characters, our judgments affect our emotions, and the trajectory of our feelings is linked to the psychological and thematic effects of the narrative. Furthermore, the communicative situation of narrative - somebody telling somebody else that something happened - is itself an ethical situation. The teller's treatment of the events will inevitably convey certain attitudes toward the audience, attitudes that indicate his or her sense of responsibility to and regard for the audience. Similarly, the audience's response to the narrative will indicate their commitments to the teller, the narrative situation, and to the values expressed in the narrative.(2)

Among the many approaches to ethics now being developed, this one is most closely related to those of Wayne C. Booth and of Adam Zachary Newton.(3) Each of them, like me, wants to root narrative ethics in narrative itself rather than in some abstract ethical system. Indeed, Booth emphasizes the pervasiveness of ethics in critical responses to literature, and Newton says that he wants to conceive of "narrative as ethics." Each of them moves, in his own way, from narrative to theoretical treatments of narrative and then back to narrative. …

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