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  • Toward a Rhetorical Reader-Response Criticism:The Difficult, the Stubborn, and the Ending of Beloved

The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereadings, which motions to future readings as well as contemporary ones, implies a sharable world and an endlessly flexible language. Readers and writers both struggle to interpret and perform within a common language sharable imaginative worlds.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

1. Reading Beloved

I am in Beloved and Beloved is in me.

Like Stamp Paid, I enter without knocking. For days I live at 124. I become Sethe. Paul D. Denver. Amy Denver; Baby Suggs; Stamp Paid. The days are intense, difficult, exhausting, rewarding. I reach to understand. Stretching, straining, marveling, I perform Morrison's world. [End Page 709]

But Beloved also eludes me. Like Stamp Paid on the threshold of 124, I cannot enter. Parts of Morrison's world won't let me in. Especially Beloved herself and the narrative's last two pages. Who, what is Beloved? Yes, Sethe's murdered daughter. And —or?—a survivor of the Middle Passage. Labels, not understanding. And why the cryptic ending? Why move away from the intimate scene between Sethe and Paul D to declare "this is not a story to pass on"?

Another label for Beloved—from the litcrit drawer: oppositional character. Spiteful ghost, manipulating lover, selfish sister, all-consuming daughter. But also innocent—and representative—victim. Where is the integration—or the reason for no integration? A label for the ending: confrontational. But why this prose: "In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away"?

These questions, I see, are interconnected—answer one and other answers will follow—but something, someone blocks my way. Morrison? Me? My race? Gender? Something I have locked away in a fobacco tin inside my heart? Some other ignorance or insensitivity? All of these?

Oppositional character, confrontational ending indeed.

There is a loneliness that reads.

2. Reading, Response, and Interpretation

Other critics of Beloved both relieve and exacerbate the loneliness, especially in relation to Beloved. In particular, Elizabeth House, Judith Wilt, Barbara Rigney, Deborah Horvitz, Jean Wyatt, and Ashraf H. A. Rushdy offer excellent insights about Beloved, perceptions about her or her monologue that substantially advance my efforts to share Morrison's world.1 At the same time, their work paradoxically increases my loneliness because Beloved still seems to elude explanation and a gap remains between response and interpretation. Beloved is a survivor of the Middle Passage and of a white man found dead in his cabin around the time she shows up at 124 (House). She is both Sethe's murdered daughter and her murdered African mother (Wyatt), a specific character in a specific family and a representative of all the middle passage women (Rigney), "and also all Black women in America trying to trace their ancestry back to the mother on the ship attached to them" (Horvitz 157). She is a figure filled with the psychokinetic energy of the others, who then use that energy to act out their needs and desires (Wilt). She is the [End Page 710] incarnation of Sethe's guilt (Rushdy). Because the novel supports—indeed, insists on—all these not entirely compatible accounts, it prevents us from resting with any one and makes the struggle to "perform" her part of Morrison's world extraordinarily demanding. Moreover, adding the possibilities together gives us something less than the sum of the parts: Beloved dissolves into multiple fragments.

This gap between the experience of reading Beloved and the explanations offered by its interpreters is, in one respect, par for practical criticism's course. Despite the significant work done in reader-response theory in the last twenty-five years, including such useful recent books as those by Iser, Rabinowitz, Steig, Crosman, and Flynn and Schweickart, most interpretive practice remains unaffected by this work, rarely taking its starting point from the critic's response.2 Perhaps the most dramatic example of this general critical habit of separating the experience of reading from the act of interpretation occurs...


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