In her fascinating 1973 novel, Sula, Toni Morrison deconstructs traditional understandings of the oppositions between self and other, rationality and emotion, and good and evil to reveal the similarities and differences among all people, adding up to nothing. If there is truly no superior option, what Morrison proposes by dissolving these ancient hierarchies is nothing more or less than the radical idea that there is no right way to lead a life.
Many significant relationships depicted in Sula are of an intensely personal nature, to the point that multiple people are shown as one whole being. The most striking case of this is that of the deweys, who “[speak] with one voice, [think] with one mind” (39). Though they begin as three different boys, the Deweys soon meld into one, a “trinity with a plural name” a metaphor for societal conformity (38). Sula and Nel’s intense friendship, the focus of the novel, depicts an entirely different sort of closeness. The girls are two distinct beings, but they appear to have a psychic connection of sorts (58), having “made each other’s acquaintance in the delirium of their noon dreams” (51). The way they naturally begin to “use each other to grow on” (52) reflects some of the qualities of the deweys’ twinship and, like the deweys, the two girls are solitary creatures who seem destined to find each other, as each is essential to the other’s development. As Nel puts it when she realizes just how important Sula was to her: “We was girls together” (174). However, after adolescence, Nel and Sula grow apart, the latter continuing her girlish existence with an “experimental life” (118) while Nel marries and gets tied down by “virtue” (139), living exactly in accordance with what is expected of her. They are both lonely in the end, but as Sula proclaims on her deathbed, “my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s” (143). In this way, Morrison reveals that the price of belonging can be loss of identity. The binary of self and other is thus restored, but in doing so, Morrison reveals complexities in the nature of identity, including the fragmentation of a single person. Nel, through her life as a wife and mother, still contains the part of herself that was one with Sula. She “knew how to behave as the wronged wife” (120), but still felt the immensity of her relationship with Sula. Though it is not seen through her unions with Sula and then with Jude, who obscured her in his search for manhood, there was a part of Nel that celebrated how herself she was. The same part of her that hoped to travel the world alone, and wanted “to be…wonderful” (29) in a moment of “me-ness” that reaffirms the reader’s faith in the sanctity of self. By revealing the many aspects of a single person and the ties between many, Morrison effectively forces the reader to reconsider their understanding of identity.
In Sula, there is a distinctly feminist approach to understanding the binary of emotion and rationality. In our culture the hierarchy distinctly favors rationality, “emotional” often being used as a term to weaken and discredit women. Early on, Sula and Nel become representative of this binary, “Nel [seeming] stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly sustain any emotion for more than three minutes” (53). The hierarchy seems to be maintained as the two grow up and Sula remains wild, indulging her every whim. According to Nel, “she behaved emotionally and irresponsibly” (101), and could not be trusted with important decisions. Nel, on the other hand, seems to remain as sensible as can be, leading her life with “virtue”. However, upon closer inspection, this narrative soon overturns itself. For one thing, in their adult lives, Sula seems consistently happier than Nel, whose ego keeps her tied to a man who hopes, with her, to “make one Jude” (83). In Nel’s eyes, Sula’s return to the Bottom brings a sort of “magic” (95) into town, an “aura of fun and complicity”, that seems to be the influence of the freedom of letting one’s emotions roam free. Besides that, the actions that Nel considers irrational make perfect sense from Sula’s point of view, and are entirely successful in achieving what she expects them to. After she cuts off the tip of her finger, (53) the Irish boys never bother the girls again. And all Sula means to do by putting Eva in a home is to get rid of her, and that is exactly what she does. That is not to say that Sula’s actions are carefully calculated and thought out, but rather that doing what she wants tends to yield the desired result. By deconstructing the binary of emotion and rationality, Morrison puts the power back in emotion, and in doing so, overturns a longstanding patriarchal perception of what makes women weak.
The stagnant community of the Bottom is one of the central characters, representing the accepted mainstream fear of any change or deviation from the norm. In the eyes of the people evil is evil and Sula comes to represent it. A good person maintains the status quo, being kind even when the kindness is insincere. Essentially, the goal of the community is to remain the same, merely surviving unavoidable change. Nel, whose hard working stoicism and suppression of all “sparkle or splutter” (83) wins her work and children, represents this comfort found in security. To Nel, “Hell is change” (108), while to Sula, “The real hell of Hell is that it is forever” (107). In the context of local society, Sula is a contrarian, rejecting the principles around which Bottom is built. The very idea of the foundation of one’s life being removed is too terrifying to confront, and so the citizens of Bottom do not, writing off Sula’s actions as evil to be survived. In reality, her need and desire for change, her terror that “Nothing was ever different” represents a restless spirit. Sula’s presence in the Bottom, just like all the other hardships they were able to meet and survive, does people good. The threat to their stable way of life gives them “leave to protect and love one another” (117). This phenomenon of bringing people closer to their feelings about each other and themselves is associated with Sula, as her presence brightened the whole world in Nel’s eyes (94). Reframing evil as the creation of change immediately breaks down the expected hierarchy, bringing the need for progress and the dangers of clinging to the past to the forefront on conversation.
By deconstructing three binaries of identity, logic, and morality, Morrison offers a new understanding of the reasons – rational and irrational – that people upon, and to what extent potential consequences of a course of action affect their decisions. Strong ties to another person can alter the thought process from a logical assessment to an intuitive, joint experience, while the traditional hierarchy that favors rational, cautious thinking is overturned by establishing emotion as a valid guide to one’s actions. Finally, Morrison leads the audience to reevaluate the balance of consequences and intentions in attempting to categorize good or evil. Ultimately, the essential meaninglessness of our most valued concepts becomes empowering, giving one the freedom to do what they do, feel as they feel, and love who they love.