The Deconstruction of Binaries in Sula
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.
The Effect of Death on Different Characters in Sula
The role of death, both physically and mentally, has a heavy effect on characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula. Shadrack survives as a soldier during World War I, dealing directly with death that he sees all around. Like Shadrack, Plum returns home emotionally distraught from the war and is killed by his mother out of love. The struggling relationship between Hannah and Eva gets increasingly difficult after Eva kills her own son, Plum, but then sacrifices her own life for her daughter as she burns to death.The first case of death involves Shadrack, a World War I veteran from the Bottom, who returns from war traumatized after seeing a fellow soldier’s head blown off in front of him. While he is in the hospital, his mindset is still as if he is in the war. Before doing any task such as eating, he has to convince himself that he is no longer in battle. Morrison says, “Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were – would not explode or bust forth from their restricted zones – he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands” (Morrison 9). Shadrack has gotten to the point where he is afraid of everything, including his own hands. He ironically returns from the war less afraid of death than he was when he was in battle and more while in safety. He is not afraid of death itself but rather more afraid of not knowing when his death will occur. As a means of coping with the unknown, Shadrack creates a national holiday. “He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of it…in this manner he instituted National Suicide Day” (14). Every January 3rd on National Suicide Day, he would walk down the streets with a hanging rope and cowbell encouraging people to kill themselves or others because it was the only opportunity to escape the memory of death. Those around him know what he went through but still think he is crazy and irrational. As time goes on, people come to accept National Suicide Day as part of their traditions and rituals. After an awful winter and thaw occur, the residents of the town look forward to and participate in National Suicide Day for the first time because it is an event they are used to and helps them to forget about everything that has happened by doing something familiar. Ironically, when the people are ready to participate in full force for the first time, it is also the first time that Shadrack does not want to have the march. For years he marched alone trying to rally supports, and now when he has them, the leader and creator himself no longer wants it to continue. Shadrack was not the only character used by Morrison who suffered severe mental issues as result of World War I. Eva’s son, Plum, returns home from the war much like Shadrack did but, in contrast, turned into a drug addict to cope with his difficulties. Plum’s change into a drug addict had numerous signs that were slowly being seen more and more. Hannah as the one to actually find out he was on drugs. Morrison says, “Then he began to steal from them, take trips to Cincinnati and sleep for days in his room with the record player going…It was Hannah who found the bent spoon black from steady cooking.” (45). Plum’s descent into drugs was over a period of time. They noticed that he was stealing items from his own family members and leaving town to go on random trips. Hannah ends up being the one to fully realize the extent of his drug addiction when she finds the black spoon in his possession. However, what happens as a result of his drug addiction affects more people than just his own body and self. While sleeping one night, Plum is awakened by his mother who is there to comfort him. They lay there as Eva holds Plum in her arms. Later, he thinks she is pouring water or a liquid on him as a blessing but it turns out not to be. “He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him…She rolled a bit of newspaper into a tight stick about six inches long, lit it and threw it onto the bed where the kerosene-soaked Plum lay in snug delight.” (47). After seeing her son in such a state, Eva does not want him to suffer any longer nor does she want to see his drug addiction worsen. Eva’s decision to toss the lit kerosene stick toward him benefits her own desires as well, though. Throughout Plum’s descent into drug addiction, Eva has had to take care and support Plum far more than a regular child at an adult age. She has essentially had to go backwards in motherhood and treat Plum as if he is a young child again. In order to escape the responsibility of caring for her son, she pours kerosene on his body while he’s sleeping and burns him to death. She burns him to death as a sign of her love for him, but it also shows selfishness in Eva. She thinks the future of those around her is under her control as well as her right so she takes Plum’s matters into her own hands. The concept that a mother would burn her own son to death out of love is confusing and unimaginable to the reader. As the other members of the household, including Hannah and Sula, and the neighbors rush to try and extinguish the fire, Eva stands by watching and raises confusion and questions by everyone else. Hannah and Eva have always had a complicated and struggling relationship, especially since it is common knowledge that Eva loved Plum more than Hannah. What Eva does to Plum only hurts and strains the relationship between her and Hannah even further. Eva does, however, show that she still loves her daughter when she risks her own life for her. When Hannah is outside in the yard, her own dress lights on fire and burns her to death. However, Eva, who is watching nearby, nearly sacrifices her own life when she jumps on Hannah trying to extinguish the fire. When she is watching Hannah in the yard from inside the window, she looks away briefly and then back outside towards, witnessing her daughter’s dress in flames from head to toe ignited by a yard fire. “She rolled up to the window and it was then she saw Hannah burning. The flames from the yard fire were licking the blue cotton dress, making her dance. Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own.” (75). Instantly, Eva jumps out of the window and runs toward Hannah thinking that if she can cover her up with her own body, she can extinguish the fire and safe Hannah’s life. Eva’s actions contradict the current relationship between the two of them, indicating that Eva does still love her daughter. Neighbors and family members present quickly began pouring water onto both Eva and Hannah but by that time it is too late for Hannah. Her body and flesh has already burned too badly for any chance of recovery. “Hannah died on the way to the hospital. Or so they said. In any case, she had already begun to bubble and blister so badly that the coffin has to be kept closed at the funeral.” (77). Both Eva and Hannah were put on stretchers and brought to the hospital together. Upon arrival, Hannah was the priority of the doctors and Eva was simply left on the floor in severe condition because it wasn’t as bad as her daughter’s. However, she was left there and fortunately enough was found by a custodian and barely saved. “When Eva got to the hospital they put her stretcher on the floor, so preoccupied with the hot and bubbling flesh of the other…they forgot Eva, who would have bled to death except Old Willy Fields, the orderly, saw blood staining his just-mopped floors.” (77). The tragic event that occurs to Hannah is devastating to all but what is perhaps the most surprising is Eva’s reaction. As mentioned before, Plum was always the favorite child and Eva went as far as to say that she didn’t even love Hannah. However, in Hannah’s time of need, everything that was said did not hold true. Eva risked and nearly sacrificed her own life for her daughter. If Hannah could have lived to see what her mother did to save her life, their relationship most likely would have, for the first time, strengthened. Toni Morrison used the action of death to further describe the relationships between different characters and how they were affected by the death of others. Although it is common for many relationships to strengthen through death as a method of grieving, more relationships are hurt in a negative way throughout Sula. People thought Shadrack’s actions were crazy and disregarded them, but, by the end, many of the same people joined him in his efforts. Hannah and her mother’s relationship worsens, thinking that her mother does not love her or Plum, but Eva does love her as evidenced by her sacrifice to save Hannah’s life. Unfortunately, Hannah is no longer around to see how their relationship could have eventually changed and strengthened. Morrison portrays the relationship between characters by a means of death in unique and effective ways while creating a strong impact on the reader.
Destructive Heterosexuality in Sula
In Sula, Toni Morrison chronicles the lives of two African-American women whose close friendship is torn apart by infidelity. In the novel, Morrison paints the relationship between the character’s leading women, Sula and Nel, as one of fulfillment, encouragement, and support. Patriarchal heterosexual relationships, by contrast, are painted as unsuccessful or damaging by restricting free will, leaving women to raise families alone, and creating competition and causing division within female friendships. According to Adrianne Rich, author of “Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence,” patriarchal heterosexual relationships should be examined as an institution much as the economic system of capitalism or the caste system of racism. Rich believes requisite patriarchal heterosexuality has been established as a means of restraining women’s unique identities and perpetuating male dominance, with the result that it “keeps numberless women psychologically trapped, trying to fit mind, spirit, and sexuality into a prescribed script because they cannot look beyond the parameters of the acceptable. It pulls on the energy of such women” (657). Morrison mirrors Rich’s beliefs in Sula when she fabricates the male presence as a negative force in the lives of the novel’s women, where males are typically absent and marriage is seen as a job. While the novel’s two main characters, Sula and Nel, suffer a period of disconnection, both women ultimately realize that their most intimate and essential relationship is with each other. Sula and Nel become fast friends very quickly as a product, describes Morrison, of realizing at a young age that they are “neither white nor male” (52). Knowing that all freedom is forbidden to them, each girl decides to become something else; they’re able to use each other to develop. The two grow so intimate that they frequently act in tandem, performing identical tasks without need of speech. The author demonstrates the girls’ nonverbal collusion when Nel and Sula dig holes in the earth during a sunny summer day: in concert, the girls strip the bark off twigs and use the twigs to dig two separate holes; still not speaking, they join their two smaller holes to form a single larger hole and, when Nel’s twig snaps, both girls toss in their twigs, add bits of trash, and then fill in the hole they’ve created. When thinking about their relationship, Nel relates that “talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself. Was there anyone else before whom she could never be foolish? In whose view inadequacy was mere idiosyncrasy, a character trait rather than a deficiency?” (95). The two girls evidence Rich’s sentiments that “woman-identification is a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power” (657). In each other, the girls find complete acceptance and an emotional rapport not evidenced in any of the heterosexual relationships in Sula. As a product of this constant intimacy with each other, Morrison reports that Sula and Nel grow content and no longer experience the need to conform to the Bottom’s expectations. For example, Nel’s mother, Helene, urges her daughter to pull her nose with a clothespin in the hopes of giving it a more “attractive” appearance; Nel performs this duty with zest but without expectation until she meets Sula, at which point she retires the clothespin permanently. As well, though Nel still endures having her hair straightened with a hot comb once a week, the affect no longer appeals to her. Morrison’s detailing of Sula and Nel’s relationship is true to Rich’s description of the benefits of female friendship. Quoting author Audre Lord, Rich writes that female comradeship is “the empowering joy which ‘makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial’” (650). Like Rich, Morrison illustrates that close female camaraderie makes it possible for the women to resist conformity.Marriage, both in Sula and in “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” is viewed as the destructive, yet inevitable, outcome of the patriarchal heterosexual mold. In detailing marriage, Morrison writes that Eva, after being hospitalized following the death of Hannah, recalls Hannah’s dream from the night before of getting married in a red dress. Eva remembers that marriage, in dreams, always means death. Morrison’s views on marriage encouraged by patriarchal heterosexuality are even more clearly expressed through Sula’s eyes:Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bulging with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve. (122).From Sula’s statements, it’s apparent that Morrison feels marriage is a negative construct into which women are lured as a way of filling what they are indoctrinated to believe is an unavoidable emptiness. Rich writes in “Compulsory Sexuality” that women marry as part of the patriarchal heterosexual institution because it’s essential “in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of ‘abnormal’ childhoods they wanted to feel “normal,” and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment” (654). Consistent with Rich’s theory, Morrison states that Nel’s parents have succeeded in dulling any spark of individuality from Nel in their determination for her to be viewed as well-bred, desirable wife material. Helene, in particular, is resolute in her yearning for Nel to lead a more “normal” life: having been born to a whore and raised by her grandmother, Helene is still plagued with the need to prove, to herself and others, how far she’s risen on the social ladder, even if her daughter must serve as the proof. Nel marries Jude because he makes her feel singularly needed; in Morrison’s words, “[Nel] didn’t even know she had a neck until Jude remarked on it, or that her smile was anything but the spreading of her lips until he saw it as a small miracle” (84). For his part, Jude desires to marry Nel in reaction to being emasculated by the white citizens of Medallion. Morrison conveys that the whites refuse to hire African-Americans for decent jobs despite their superior qualifications, so Jude is forced to rely on very little pay and must turn to his mother for support. To Jude’s way of thinking, marrying Nel allows him to justify his menial work; he can tell himself that he stays at his job out of necessity, to support his family. As for Sula, she encourages Nel’s marriage to Jude simply because “she thought it was the perfect thing to do following their graduation from general school” (84). When Sula supports Nel’s marriage, however, she doesn’t suspect that Nel will settle down to the conventional patriarchal role of the possessive, sympathetic wife. When Jude complains about how tough life is for a black man, for example, Sula interjects her opinion that black men seem to have a rather easy life specifically to prevent Nel from uttering the expected “milkwarm commiseration” (103). In response to Sula’s comments, Jude sizes Sula up as “a woman roaming the country trying to find some man to burden down with a lot of lip and a lot of mouths” (103). Simply because Sula dares to voice her own beliefs, Jude becomes upset and concludes that Sula’s going to be trouble for men. After Jude leaves Nel, Morrison narrates Sula’s reflection that “she knew well enough what other women said and felt, or said they felt. But she and Nel had always seen through them. They both knew that those women were not jealous of other women; that they were only afraid of losing their jobs” (119). Instead, by the time Sula returns from ten years away at college, she discovers belatedly that Nel has changed: after Sula sleeps with Jude, Nel is unable to forgive her. Sula eventually comes to the bitter realization that “now Nel was one of them. One of the spiders whose only thought was the next rung of the web…They were merely victims and knew how to behave in that role (just as Nel knew how to behave as the wronged wife)…Now Nel belonged to the town and all of its ways” (120). In the end, Nel is so enveloped in the town’s customs that she chides Sula for her determination to remain independent. Though Morrison narrates that Sula’s glad she lived for herself, Sula also falls for a man prior to her demise. When Sula first meets Ajax, she enjoys his company mainly because he doesn’t talk down to her like other men; a not-so-subtle critique of male condescension. Gradually, Sula feels herself developing a sense of possession over Ajax. When she makes the mistake of revealing too much of her emotions to her lover, he decides to leave. Sula realizes that she “did not hold my head stiff enough when I met him and so I lost it just like the dolls” (136). Morrison’s description of Sula’s self-scorn over falling for Jude shows the author’s view that females act as mindless “dolls” when pursuing a conventional heterosexual relationship; it also reveals yet another failed heterosexual connection. Further, Sula discovers that Ajax’s real name is Alan Jacks. Since she hasn’t even known his name, Sula concludes that she never knew the man at all. Their relationship represents Sula’s attempt to fall in with the heterosexual institution: the urge to conform insinuates itself so heavily that Sula constructs her own image of “Ajax;” repeatedly describing her craving to scrape off his outer layer to reveal the “gold” she’s sure lies underneath (137).Within the first three chapters of Morrison’s novel Sula, the author sketches a picture of absent boyfriends, husbands and fathers. Eva, Sula’s grandmother, is forced to raise her family alone when her husband BoyBoy abandons her. Rekus, Sula’s father and Hannah’s husband, is granted only a single sentence in the novel, when Morrison explains that he died when Sula was three; the cause of his death isn’t mentioned. Wiley, Nel’s father and Helene’s husband, is alive but rarely home. The male image doesn’t improve as the novel progresses: Jude leaves Nel after having an affair with Sula, and Sula’s boyfriend, Ajax, leaves when he suspects Sula is beginning to feel possessive of him. The consequences of the little-seen or completely absent males are exhibited in various ways. For instance, because they’re left to raise their families alone, Eva, Hannah, and Helene are unable to spend much time playing with their children. The lack of personal attention damages not only the mothers’ relationships with their daughters, but the daughters’ eventual relationships with their own children: since Helene is birthed to a lower-class whore, she feels the need to groom her daughter, Nel, into the perfect, docile woman as proof of how far she’s come. Nel is therefore not allowed room for imagination or other personal expression. As Rich urges in “Compulsory Sexuality,” Morrison closely scrutinizes patriarchal heterosexual relationships in Sula. Both women highlight the benefits of female companionship: when Sula and Nel are together in the beginning of the novel, Morrison relates that each is able to be her own person, express her own passions, and feel completely free, a sentiment echoed in “Compulsory Sexuality.” Morrison focuses on her belief that heterosexual relationships are an institution inflicted by males to repress females by continually stressing the failure of compulsory patriarchal heterosexual relationships and the harmful outcomes compliance exacts on women. Nel’s seduction into the patriarchal heterosexual relationship mold, for instance, costs Sula and Nel’s friendship to end in heartbreak and leaves Nel, in particular, feeling that she’s lost a piece of herself. Similar to Rich, Morrison describes patriarchal heterosexual relationships, and the marriage touted as the ultimate goal thereof, as a leech sucking women dry of joy and leaving them empty husks continuing to live for their children’s sake. Solely through an examination of the institution of patriarchal heterosexual relationships can the pattern of male dominance, which has set the mold for all forms of abuse, be broken.
Reclaiming Identity in Toni Morrison’s Sula
Toni Morrison novels famously give voice to a black political, social, and moral conscience. Her novels deal primarily with the issues and concerns of black heritage and future and all the triumphs and tragedies of power and identity in between. Morrison uses the very processes of writing and characterization as a tool of negotiation of power and identity in her novel Sula. Her racial and political explorations can be effectively deepened and complicated for the reader by considering her language as a tool of black agency.”Before [Shadrack] on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes . . . Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles – a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were – would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones – he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands” (pg. 8).The divided meal Morrison describes here captures the simple conceptions of race and race relations in the United States that have long existed in place of any deep understanding. In Shadrack’s plate the browns, whites, and reds (or, crudely, the African-Americans, the Caucasian-Americans, and the Native Americans) exist in perfect balance when separated and contained without opportunity to interact. The balance gives Shadrack some ease, but such balance should not be read as a support of segregation. Shadrack is a sick and mentally confused man and only because of his weakness is the balance soothing. Morrison makes explicit the image of each of these separate triangles as being relatively undesirable as they exist on their own, “All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles.” On their own, each triangle is an incomplete and “repugnant” meal. Separated, they are no less wretched to eat, but their balance gives Shadrack a false sense of their edibility. Considering the triangles as separation of race, such containment gives nothing but a falsely copacetic sense of racial relations. The food may be separated by barriers, but it will all come to interact once inside Shadrack. Similarly, there may be racial barriers in the United States, but there is never a lack of interaction. The containments and barriers try to define a sense of appropriate place. Racial tensions and conventions as they have been defined in the United States cannot be contained by physical barriers, however. This pervasiveness of racial conventions is a major influence on Morrison’s creations in this novel.With these false barriers, a sense of place is created for the characters of Sula in a place called the Bottom. The Bottom’s very foundation as a black town is a result of interaction with whites who promised that the Bottom, ironically located on the top of a hill, is ideal because it is “the bottom of heaven – best land there is” (pg. 5). The Bottom proves to be a largely worthless land area and the decay and lack of value of the town is constant throughout the novel, with the novel opening and closing on the destruction and end of the town. Stylistically, opening the novel on this sense of decay helps define the tone of loss in the novel which reverberates most devastatingly when Shadrack’s promise of permanency— that is, his comment to Sula, “Always”— goes long forgotten and unrealized. Morrison denies permanency to the town as a means of denying permanency to a sense of home. Home is defined through people and emotions, not through space. For the black people of the Bottom, even when they get to the top (in the sense that they are above the whites in location), they are still at the “bottom.” Living high above in a place called the Bottom offers a confused sense of place in the world. Such a confusion of place drives racial tensions in the United States, and the tensions of the characters in Sula. Part of the misery of Sula is her loss of sense of place. She disappears for ten years, finding no home in any city and returning to the Bottom, not because it was a home to her, but because it was the last of her options. Helene Wright, the mother of Nel Wright, also characterizes this confused sense of place. Her confusion does not rest in where she calls her physical home, but rather, where she calls her societal place. After receiving harsh words and treatment from a white train conductor, “Like a street pup that wags its tail at the very doorjamb of the butcher shop he has been kicked away from only moments before”, Helene smiled. Smiled dazzlingly and coquettishly at the salmon-colored face of the conductor” (pg. 21). Helene smiles out of a sense of submission, trying to appeal to the white male conductor for approval, almost as an apology for her being a black female. The simile Morrison uses is especially effective because the comparison of Helene’s actions to that of a puppy highlights the response as being automatic and even dumb, a symbol of her internalization of submission. Her very proper style and mannerisms also act as an apology for her Creole, free-to-be-black inheritance of which she is ashamed. This confusion of place in society does not go unchecked by those who are in the position to give her a place – the two black soldiers who saw her submissive smile on the train “looked stricken” (pg. 21) and the people of Medallion effectively changed her name to Helen in their pronunciation (pg. 18). Changing Helene to Helen makes Helene more ordinary and gives her a sense of place, allowing her to belong to these people. This concern with Helene’s name is only one part of a focus on the constructions, meanings and origins of names as a major tool for commentary in Sula.Names have long held a mythological importance in societies as reflecting and affecting the fates and personalities of those given them. Names for African-Americans are that much more important because of the roots of slavery which often denied the freedom to take and give names at the enslaved people’s own discretion. Last names for enslaved people were usually taken from their master’s last name, denying any sense of genuine lineage or shared familial identity. Additionally, enslaved people were generally given Christian names, all but erasing the African naming traditions and rituals which gave special meaning to newborn individuals for the rest of their lives. As a testament to the pervasive racism that informed the institution of slavery, enslaved people were also at times given names that would otherwise be reserved only for barn animals, such as Jumper or Milky. This history of name denial and perversion is important to understanding the tool of naming in Sula. The book uses names as an act of resistance to give back to black individuals their fates and personalities that the naming tradition grants them. Interestingly, Morrison also uses names as a tool to represent racial conventions and her characterization of and commentary on them.The importance of names is evident in the very title of the novel. Sula is an essential character, and much of the content of the book is framed around her, but it would be impossible to say that there are not other characters that are as central to the book as Sula is. Entire sections and chapters are devoted to the lives of Shadrack, Eva, Hannah, Helene and especially Nel. Though the novel is written in the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator, it shifts into Shadrack’s perception of reality (though remaining in third-person) in his major section (pg. 11) and it most notably shifts to a first-person inner dialogue narration during the scene in which Nel catches Jude and Sula. The fluidity in narrative voices and perception is a narrative method that has appeared in Western literature before Morrison, but its use in Sula functions specifically to reflect the communal nature of narrative that is common to the African-American aesthetic of call and response, in which the speaker invites the listeners to become active listeners and thus speakers as well. With such varying focus on characters, why then is the novel named solely for Sula? I argue that the title is such not because it is a suggestion that the character Sula is the most important, but that the title is Sula because of the meaning of the name.”Sula” is a North African name meaning “peace.” Essentially, Sula Peace’s name means “Peace Peace” and the repetition highlights the importance of the meaning, working itself as a sort of chant that the tombstones of the same name read as to Nel (pg. 171). Sula’s character, upon her return as an adult to the Bottom, is maligned as a devil. According to the town’s folk, “…in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and the fourth explained Sula” (pg. 118). The town regarded Sula as immoral, without a sense of purpose or place. She was a pariah in the town because nothing mattered to her and she was thus a dangerous threat to every relation and institution. But in their inability to understand her and in their fear of her (and even in their hatred of her), the people of Sula’s town were able to define themselves. They sought to live in opposition to her in every way, and in this, they became more moral and kind and considerate. The threat of Sula gave the people a sense of morality and commitment to their relations and town. It brought them peace, as her name and the title suggests.Nel Wright, Sula’s best friend, also carries a name that Morrison loads with suggestions. Sula and Nel can be read as two halves of one whole person. Eva’s comment to Nel during Nel’s visit to Eva’s old-age home suggests that inseparability of the two, “You. Sula. What’s the difference?” (p. 168). Nel’s last name may suggest then that she was the “right” half of the one person that Sula and Nel made up – that she was the moral, reasonable half. But to accept that is to accept the demonization of Sula as the immoral, unreasonable half. Sula instead functions to transcend the limited conceptions of “right” that the town’s people and white, Christian society have created for black women. Nel is “right” then in the sense that she is the black female as the pigeonhole allows her to be, not necessarily as she ought to be. “Now Nel belonged to the town and all of its ways” (pg. 120). Sula is dramatized as a tragic heroine because she could not find a way to function in her transcendence of her role, but that does not mean that transcending the limited societal role of the black female is not the ideal. It is at the end of the novel that Nel recognizes her sense of loss as a sorrow for losing Sula, not Jude or the life Nel had with him. It is with this recognition that she can finally mourn for her true loss, and give voice to the real sorrow. Giving voice to black femininity is essential in Sula and it is here that Nel’s surname takes on its other profound suggestion, “write.”In a twisted bit of comedy and surrealism, Morrison creates the three Deweys – three young black youths taken in by Eva, Sula’s grandmother, and all named Dewey by her. The Deweys become a trinity, three persons identifying as one, and in this sense, their shared name accomplishes a sense of family. But the shared identity limits them, as the Deweys never grow to become individuals, and indeed Morrison denies them even growth in size and mind, “They had been forty-eight inches tall for years now, and while their size was unusual it was not unheard of. The realization was based on the fact that they remained boys in mind” (pg. 84). Denied individuality from the start, the Deweys never develop it on their own because they have been mentally crippled by their name association. With the Deweys, Morrison reconfirms the sense of shared identity that is important to names, as well as the fate and personality that is determined by names. Because the Deweys share a name, they share the one thing that has the power to differentiate them, and thus they lack a difference. Morrison thus emphasizes the importance of name and individuality through this trio of one.Though his appearance is brief, Chicken Little plays an important role in defining the lives and personalities of Sula and Nel. Sula’s accidental killing of Chicken Little and Nel’s silence about it are major factors in their development as conscious, moral figures. Chicken Little’s name is reminiscent of the demeaning barn animal names given to blacks stemming from the institution of slavery. Morrison allows Chicken Little to be demeaned with such a name in order to represent the continued presence of racist ideologies that are so pervasive that they have actually become internalized by blacks themselves, who are the ones who gave this little boy his name. The name suggests more than a history of slavery. It is a name designed around the stereotypical racial convention of the pickaninny, a black youth who is pictured as primitive, filthy, ignorant, and ultimately expendable. Starting in the time of slavery and throughout the early 20th century, popular songs and literature in America included the depiction of filthy pickaninnies, always in the woods, out in fields, near rivers or some other such location (in order to represent them as primitive and animal-like), being killed or otherwise hurt or insulted. The death of Chicken Little buys into the convention of the pickaninny as filthy (he picks his nose throughout the scene), animal-like (his death is a drowning) and inconsequential (the expendable boy is collected by a white man who has no consideration for his body, and the truth of his death is silenced). Morrison recreates the cruel convention of the pickaninny in order to destroy it. The characters of the story may not give much consideration to his death, but the narrator treats the scene with a level of horror so as to restore to the reader the importance of the life of the individual who is more than the racial convention he follows. Morrison crafts the scene with a delicacy that preserves the innocence of Chicken Little, who sails away to his death unknowingly, emitting a “bubbly laughter” (pg. 61) which reverberates as a disturbing irony in the air.Racial stereotypes and conventions fuel the characterizations of the major players throughout Sula. The hypersexual black female is a damaging stereotype that stems from the days of slavery when black females were seen as complicit sexual demons for their relations with white slave masters (this of course ignores the lack of choice most of these enslaved women had in their sexual relations). The hypersexual black female threatens society as a home-wrecker and an unstoppable individual force. She breaks down the phallus of the political and moral authority of the American patriarchy. Considering especially the already existent demasculization of the males in the book who are characterized by drug-addictions, mental afflictions, and economic ineffectiveness, the hypersexual black female’s treatment of the phallus of authority as nothing more than the sexual and trivial penis is that much more destructive. The Peace women and particularly Sula are created out of this racial convention not as a means of supporting it, but as a means of redefining and ultimately squashing it. By characterizing their hypersexuality, Morrison gives it meaning. These women are no longer the simple stereotype that they follow but are individuals with motivations, feelings, and reasonability. Eva’s hypersexuality is particularly interesting because it defies the other racial convention out of which she seems to be crafted – the Mammy. The Mammy is a common image of black femininity (or lack thereof) in American history. Big, bold, and strong as can be, the Mammy was an aggressive mother figure with her own children, but a loving caretaker to all others (including her white masters). In order to fit this aggressive and strong ideal, the Mammy was viewed as being entirely asexual and so she was no threat. Eva is in many ways a Mammy figure. She creates an ever growing home in which she extends her care, time and space to all those who need it (and indeed sometimes to those who don’t). She is a strong, legendary woman who is rumored to have taken her own leg to collect money on it, which is testimony to her strength and resilience. But Eva defies the convention in two major ways. Her sexuality is not viewed as threatening (or not as threatening as Sula’s) to the town people but it is very real nevertheless, and this sexuality is a resistance to the convention. Additionally, in a more touching way, Eva defies the convention by devoting herself to her children. The Mammy is generally depicted as giving love to everyone but her own blood. On the surface, Eva appears to do the same, and Hannah (Eva’s daughter) even questions her about her apparent lack of love, saying, “Mamma, did you ever love us?” (pg. 67). “No. I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin'” (pg. 67), Eva replies. Her reply is short and seemingly cold and it immediately reads stylistically as if she is fitting the convention. In her consequent discussion with Hannah, however, Eva implies that she loved her children as hard and well as she could, but that her love may not appear to be conventional because their family life was never conventional. In this unconventional love, Eva rationalizes the killing of her drug-addict son and all of the other drastic and unexplained actions she has ever taken with herself and her family. Morrison crafts Eva in the convention of the Mammy in order to destroy the convention, signifying that no convention can contain an individual as unconventional as those she creates.Giving voice, giving identity, and giving individuality to her characters is essential to the novel because in doing so, Morrison defies racialized silence and conventions. Through her language, Morrison creates a home for a people that is much more complex than the little tin triangles in Shadrack’s tray would allow it to be. She creates a sense of home that is characterized by racial tensions and cultural confusions, but also ascension and realization, demonstrated sublimely in Nel’s final wail of understanding (pg. 174). By drawing on racial conventions, Morrison can recreate them at will as a way to recognize their existence. But by characterizing them, she destroys them and redefines, giving back to her characters what stereotypes and crude depictions would otherwise deny them. In reflecting in a narrative voice the ways of seeing of several characters, from Sula, to Nel, to Shadrack, to the united social voice of the town’s people, Morrison gives credence to their perceptions and ultimately reasserts their individuality. This constant reaffirmation of the importance of individuality and the ways in which it is created, destroyed, and applied in life is the ultimate refusal to accept the damaging racial ideologies and conventions Morrison represents and characterizes.
Toni Morrison: The Manifestation of Tough Love in Sula
The concept of tough love is one that is prevalent in many African-American fictional texts. Toni Morrison’s Sula is one such example of the way that tough love manifests itself through African-American parent-child relationships. It can often be mistaken for contempt, selfishness, carelessness, or all three of these elements. The discerning factor for tough love, however, is either the acted or unspoken impetus for the child’s well being. In the case of Plum and also in the case of Hannah, Eva repeatedly demonstrates this paradoxical act of selflessness. Ultimately, the relationships between Eva and her children, particularly Hannah, provide key examples for the concept of tough love, in all its misunderstood glory, as an element that results from experiencing ‘the struggle’.A key element to understanding the concept of tough love is the background from which one emerges; moreover, by emerging from the African-American struggle as Eva depicts. When Hannah approaches Eva and asks her the childish question, “Mamma, did you ever love us?”, the reader is startled by the response. This reaction is what gives tough love its edge. The shock value that Hannah, as well as the reader, has to Eva’s response is overwhelming. Morrison builds the tension in this scene nicely, beginning with Eva telling the deweys to “Scat!”, a command to which they “stumbled and tumbled” out of the room. Eva then replies, but only after making sure she understands the question correctly as many black mothers will, “No, I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin’.” (67). By Eva beginning her explanation in such a way demonstrates her surprise and seeming contempt for Hannah even asking her such a question. The manner in which Eva continues her reply implies that she feels that this question is ‘a slap in the face’ and her putrid words and short nature when replying are symbolic of her intention to ‘slap Hannah right back’. After giving Hannah a hard time about how evil and ill-intended that question is, Eva gives her a history lesson about how difficult and unforgiving life was in 1895 saying, “…1895 was a killer, girl. Things was bad. Niggers was dying like flies. Stepping tall, ain’t you?” (68). This last question Eva asks intends to let Hannah know how out of place she is in even bringing up the question of love. Eva then continues, posing the rhetorical statement “…Pearl was shittin’ worms and I was supposed to play rang-around-the rosie?…No time. They wasn’t no time. Not none. Soon as I got one day done here come a night. With you all coughin’ and me watchin’ so TB wouldn’t take you off….” (69). This long-winded reply shows how empathetic Eva is and has been to her children even when they have been apathetic to her, thus implying that her children have no real concept of what it means to struggle.After hearing her mother’s obvious disgust, Hannah decides to specify her question to include the death of Plum at the hands of their mother, asking, “But what about Plum? What’d you kill Plum for, Mamma?” (70). The suspense of this scene builds in the clever way that Morrison narrates and takes the focus off of Eva and Hannah and places it onto what is happening around them, signifying Eva’s thought process of her not wanting to be in this conversation any longer. After a long while, Eva replies, “He give me such a time. Such a time. Look like he didn’t even want to be born. But he come on out. Boys is hard to bear….” (71). She then continues about how after Plum became an addict, he returned to his infantile state, wanting to “crawl back into [her] womb”. Eva justifies her actions by saying, “I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn’t do it again….” (71). These final words are indicative of one form of tough love because here Eva explains her reasoning for sacrificing the physical life of her child so that he may be at peace. In this sense, Eva killed Plum to save his soul and to keep him from continuing his self-destruction. A part of her may have been selfish by not wanting to deal with Plum’s addiction, but she made the ultimate sacrifice in killing her own child. The romanticized way in which Morrison depicted Plum’s death was also symbolic of the theme of tough love. Eva holding Plum before she sets fire to his body signifies her struggle between a life of suffering for Plum or a death that would lead to peace. In choosing the latter, Eva demonstrates an extreme case in which tough love is key.After having this long conversation with Hannah, tough love surfaces yet again in the same chapter as Eva leaps from a second story window in an attempt to save her daughter’s life, one leg and all. This action clearly dismisses any harsh feelings of contempt that may have been rising in their earlier conversation. Eva sacrifices her livelihood for her child yet again through this selfless act of love. It goes to show that no matter how she dealt with Hannah before in a time of tension and anger, when it really comes down to it, she will do anything for her children. Morrison pays particular attention to add “The blood from [Eva’s] face cuts filled her eyes so she could not see, could only smell the familiar odor of cooked flesh,” (77), reminding Eva and also the reader of her plight with Plum. The ironic occurrence of both children dying by being burned shows Eva’s ability to love her children while gracefully accepting that she must let each one go.Throughout Sula, tough love is characterized by an action that is either tough, like Eva sacrificing her son, or loving in nature, like Eva trying to save Hannah’s life by jumping out of a window onto her burning body. Although contempt, selfishness or carelessness may be factors, they are not the driving forces behind the actions or words of toughness. They are only the means by which love can be shown in times of tribulation. In any case, tough love emerges through ‘the struggle’ that Eva has endured being an African-American mother.
Evil and Conformity in Toni Morrison’s Sula
This novel is entitled Sula, after the woman who takes the conventions of her small home town and turns them completely upside down, but the story itself would not be complete without her friend and counterpart who embodies these conventions, Nel. Although overall this is not a very realistic novel, Morrison builds these two characters realistically out of their two very different upbringings. One girl has her imagination stifled and is always surrounded by order and cleanliness, with a mother who is a moral pillar of the community, while the second little girl comes of age in a household that is in constant disarray, with no male role models and a mother who is openly promiscuous. In spite of their very different origins, the two girls find each other and build a strong bond of friendship. By presenting the reader with these two friends who eventually choose opposing paths in their adult lives, Morrison conveys her criticism of people who blindly succumb to societal conventions, revealing it as a shortcoming that can be detrimental to a person’s humanity. The “evil” actions of Sula provide a dialectic to the rest of the people in the Bottom who seem to thrive on conformity. What exactly is evil and why is it dangerous to live a life of conformity like Nel? These are the questions that I tend to explore in this paper. First of all though, it is necessary to understand where these two women come from by investigating the important events of their childhood.Helene Wright is taught by her grandmother to be ashamed of her prostitute mother while being raised with religion, “under the dolesome eyes of a multicolored Virgin Mary,”(17) and she transfers this strict upbringing onto her own daughter Nel, after she moves as far away from her New Orleans home as possible, to the Bottom. Since Helene wanted a polite, obedient daughter, she quells her imagination making the girl vulnerable to the grip of convention, “Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by her mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.”(18) In order to oppose or even think of opposing convention, an individual must have imagination, which will give her the ability to think for herself. Abiding by convention requires no imagination, one simply mindlessly joins the crowd. Nel also becomes adversely affected by the incident on the train, which is a pivotal moment in her life.It is not the increasing racism and presence of segregation on the southbound trip that profoundly affects Nel so much as the look that she sees in the black soldiers’ faces when her mother smiles at the racist white conductor.”It was on that train, shuffling towards Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard-always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly.”(22)At this point, Nel makes the conscious decision to avoid the look of disapproval at all costs, which comes to mean, later in her life, that she must follow the rules of society or suffer this same disgrace all over again. Helene had already instilled in the young girl a tendency to conform by constricting her imagination, and after this incident, Nel herself resolves to avoid confrontation, completing the education that renders her unable to resist convention. A look into the friend Nel acquires after this trip reveals a completely different situation.The Peace household was a place, “…where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink…”(29); a far cry from the order and discipline of the Wright household. Even the physical structure of the house itself is confusing, with inaccessible rooms and doors continually being added on by Eva, who is the master and demigod of the family, and this confusion and disorder translates directly into the family’s relationships. Sula’s two main role models, who were her mother Hannah and Eva, never had a steady relationship with any male outside of their respective husbands who were not around for long. Instead, there was a constant flow of strange men in the house consisting of Hannah’s daily lovers and Eva’s gentlemen callers. Aside from Boyboy, the one man she hates, Eva loves men in general, “It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters…The Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake.”(41) When Sula is older, she inevitably falls right in line with this behavior. While Nel’s mother never teaches her about sex, Hannah “rippled with sex,”(42) and Sula drew her own conclusions about it directly from her mother’s behavior,”Seeing (Hannah) step so easily into the pantry and emerge looking precisely as she did when she entered, only happier, taught Sula that sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable…So she watched her mother’s face and the face of the men when they opened the pantry door and made up her own mind.”(44)Sex for Sula has nothing to do with love or even friendship; it is no more than an act that two people of the opposite sex engage in in order to make each other happy. What could be simpler while still being contrary to every moral standard of society than that? The girl’s behavior as an adult is a reflection of these supposedly immoral lessons that she learned from her mother as a child.Nel and Sula as individuals were both lacking in a certain respect: Nel was unable to “think outside the box” without Sula, while Sula herself was unable to make reasonable decisions not completely governed by her emotions without Nel. The two halves make a whole. Morrison states that, “…they had already made each other’s acquaintance in the delirium of their noon dreams2E”(51) One girl is so much a part the other that they knew each other before they physically met. Together, the two friends embarked on the road to womanhood attempting always to find a place in white America,”Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be…Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers…they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”(52)So these two little girls, raised in completely different worlds, manage to find in each other a compliment to their own personalities and a closeness that they were unable to salvage from their differently inadequate parents2E It is within this relationship that they have their first encounter with the idea of evil-the Chicken Little incident.While it is Sula who actually lets go of Chicken Little’s hand, Nel is the one who taunts him to start with, drawing him into the interaction that results in his death. The two inadvertently work together in the boy’s demise, and the first thing Nel says after he disappears beneath the calm water, when one would expect her to shout out in grief or even disbelief is, “Somebody saw.”(61) Later, at the funeral, Nel’s sense of guilt becomes even more apparent, “Although she knew she had ‘done nothing,’ she felt convicted and hanged right there in the pew.”(65) She is not concerned about the loss of Chicken Little, only the idea that she is guilty of an evil act bothers her. On the contrary, “Sula simply cried,”(65) which exemplifies her remorse over the death of the little boy. Ironically, it is the girl who will later be considered evil by her community who mourns the loss of life and her “moral” friend who is only concerned about herself.This blurring of the line between good and evil only becomes evident to Nel forty-three years later when Eva brings the subject up and confuses her with Sula. After Nel protests to Eva that it was Sula and not she who had killed the boy, Eva replies, “You. Sula. What’s the difference? You was there. You watched didn’t you?”(168) and even goes so far as to say, “Just alike. Both of you. Never was no difference between you.”(169) After this encounter, Nel consciously recalls “The good feeling she had had when Chicken’s hands slipped.”(170) This realization makes Nel aware of the fact that she really is no different from Sula in that they are both human, and therefore imperfect. Part of this basic human imperfection is the fact that we all have a dark side whether or not we would like to admit it. Nel watched Chicken Little become a part of the river with the same sick fascination that turns heads at the scene of an accident or that causes people to secretly hope for a car crash during a race. In order to understand this secretive side of ourselves, we must first be able to acknowledge its presence, which the people of the Bottom, including Nel prior to her confrontation with Eva, are incapable of. Since they cannot understand the side of themselves that the woman Sula comes to represent, the people of the Bottom shun her and label her as being evil.Even though the black community of the Bottom, as Morrison continually emphasizes, does recognize the fact that evil is an inevitable part of life, they are too quick to label anyone who deviates from their accepted conventions as being evil. They know that, “(God) was not the God of three faces that they sang about. They knew quite well that He had a fourth and that the fourth explained Sula,”(118) but the shortcoming in this logic is the fact that the people do not apply it to themselves and consequently fail to recognize the evils inherent in their conformity. Sula is simply acting out the life that the rest of the community desires in their secret subconscious, “she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”(118) This type of life may appear to be entirely selfish, and indeed it is, but it is also very honest. If Nel and her cohorts were to take a true, honest look at their own hopes and desires, then they would realize that selfishness does not necessarily mean a complete rejection of others. In loving someone a person loves the fact that that other person brings out the best in her, which is essentially a selfish, but not evil end. Unfortunately, the conventions of society place very negative connotations on the this word, which renders a person like Sula, who is openly selfish, an object of dissension and evil. She becomes a pariah because she admits what no one else will; that first and foremost a person must live her life for herself, and in turn this honesty will leave her open and more capable of sharing her love of self with others. Nel and Sula’s childhood friendship is an example of selfish love that was beneficial to both parties. During this time, the two girls were able to bear witness to the false sense of morality that consumed the adults around them. While Sula still carried this sentiment with her into her adult life, it is the fact that Nel no longer felt this way due to her complete assimilation into society that comes between the two friends.”(Sula) knew well enough what other women felt, or said they felt. But she and Nel had always seen through them. They both knew that those women were not jealous of other women; that they were only afraid of losing their jobs2E Afraid their husbands would discover that no uniqueness lay between their legs.”(119)Sula is not a malicious person and would never willingly hurt Nel, who is the one person she ever truly loved, “She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude.”(119)Nel, however, has embraced the conventions of her society so fully that she feels as though she has experienced the ultimate act of betrayal when she catches Sula and Jude in the act. She has become one of the women that the two little girlfriends used to criticize, only upset because she “…knew how to behave as the wronged wife.”(120) Since her marriage, Nel had allowed conventions and rules to dictate her existence because she was afraid of the “free fall…that demanded invention.”(120) By allowing convention to control her action, Nel is in denial of her own humanity because she decides nothing on her own. All of her ideals are formed out of the ideals of society, which robs her of her sense of self, diminishing the quality of her life. Any idea that negates life in this way is evil in and of itself.Even three years later when Nel sees Sula for the first time since their falling out, she is still obsessed with the idea that Sula robbed her of something, but Sula corrects her in saying that Jude wasn’t taken, he left. If Nel’s beloved husband had cared about their relationship, then he would not have had sex with Sula; therefore, the fact that he did indicates that he had already left the relationship, which was originally founded on mere affection in the first place and not true love. The blindness that results from Nel’s conformity makes her oblivious to the fact that she has lost the best friend and loved one she ever had simply because society tells her that Sula is evil. She was doing,”…what every colored woman in this country is doing.”What’s that?”Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.'”(143)Nel has not truly lived because she has not been living for herself. She is incomplete-a “stump” that is incapable of forgiving her friend before she dies, but Sula’s last words come back to haunt her in the end of the novel, “How you know?…About who was good. How you know it was you?…maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.”(146)How does anyone know whom or what is good and evil? This is a question that will never have any definite answer, and it is works such as this novel that help people realize this important fact. Societies like the one in the Bottom believe that there is a concrete answer to this question and that it simply involves whether or not an individual adheres to the accepted moral standards of that society, but this is a dangerous assumption. To accept conventions such as marriage exactly the way society dictates, as Nel does, is a denial of the self, because individuals must always question what they are told. Without people like Sula, we easily forget that our lives are molded around an accepted standard that is not necessarily just, right or good, it is simply accepted. Nel gave up her one true comrade in order to remain an integral part of her society, essentially giving up everything for nothing. Life means nothing without love and friendship, and true friendship is a bond that should transcend societal boundaries. Nel and Sula knew and understood this concept when they were young, and Sula retained this ideal until the end, whereas Nel lost track of her priorities when she gave herself up to conformity. The greatest evil revealed by this novel is the evil inherent in denying one’s self in order to place the comfort and ease of convention above one’s true nature and desire. By labeling Sula as evil, the Bottom unwittingly revealed the evils of its societal infrastructure-the evils of mindless conformity that deny true humanity. Morrison’s ending saves itself from being completely tragic when Nel finally realizes the importance of her friendship with Sula over her position as a wronged wife. “‘All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude…We was girls together…O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.'”(174) Given the circumstances, this is a happy ending, because Nel has finally realized the error of her ways and is able to truly mourn her lost companion.
“Motherhood Is a Refining Fire”: Exploring Constructions of Black Motherhood and Fire Imagery Throughout Toni Morrison’s Sula
Since its publication in 1973, Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Sula has awed readers with its thought provoking imagery and themes. Sula tells the story of the Peace family, which consists of Eva, Hannah, Plum, Pearl, and Sula. The Peace family faces many hardships throughout the years, but their love for one another and desire to survive and thrive prevails. Morrison provides readers with three different views of motherhood within the Peace family. First, is Eva whom many would consider to be a stereotypical “matriarch”. Eva is a self-sacrificing, strong-willed woman who arguably cut off her own leg in order to feed her children. Eva does what is necessary for the Peace family to survive, which includes putting Plum out of his misery by burning him to death, and also jumping out of a window to attempt to save Hannah from burning to death. Next, is Eva’s daughter Hannah. Hannah, like her mother is strong-willed and independent, but she also displays a lot of sexual freedom which is passed down to her only daughter, Sula. Hannah also claims to “love Sula”, but she just doesn’t “like her” (Morrison 57). Sula inherits traits from both Eva and Hannah, but the most important and differing aspect of Sula is that she is more interested in mothering herself and establishing herself than she is mothering a child.
In the article “Revision of Motherhood, Maternity, and Matriarchy in Toni Morrison’s Novels” Parvin Ghasemi argues that “while Morrison sees motherhood as an important experience for women, she does not limit women’s roles in society to motherhood, nor does she restrict motherhood to biological maternity. For Morrison, mothers are first and foremost human beings with distinct identities, individuals who can have the potential—in favorable circumstances—to realize that motherhood and individuality are not mutually exclusive” (Ghasemi 27). In the novel, plays an important role when analyzing the portrayals of motherhood. Fire is not only used in the traditional symbol of destruction, but it is also used as an act of mercy and rebirth in Eva’s infanticide towards Plum. As a whole, fire comes to represent Black motherhood and the societal expectations placed on women to become mothers. Eva sets fires and tries to put out fires, Hannah is consumed by fire, and the fire burns inside Sula. To begin to recognize the evolution of motherhood and fire throughout the novel, I am first going to analyze the character of Eva. Much of Eva’s character can come to be understood through her love for her son Plum. When Plum was a sick baby, Eva took the last food in the house and “rammed [it] up her baby’s behind to keep from hurting him too much when she opened up his bowels to pull the stools out” (Morrison 70). In this quote, Morrison uses abjection to illustrate the selflessness and love that Eva has towards not only all of her children put Plum in particular. Eva takes the last bit of food not only for her, but her other two children, just to relieve baby Plum from pain. This need to relieve her children from pain carries on into adulthood.
After Plum returns from the war he becomes an addict and reverts to a child-like stage. Eva is upset by Plum’s reversion, as he was her favorite child whom she was going to leave everything to. Ultimately, Eva makes the emotional decision to murder Plum out of mercy. One night Plum opens his “eyes and saw what he imaged was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him. Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought. Everything was going to be all right, it said” (47). Plum imagining the great wing of an eagle carries great symbolic weight. An eagle in the American context is seen as a bird of great beauty, and it also symbolizes freedom as it is the emblem of the United States of America. The wing of an eagle implies that through this heinous act Plum will be free, he will find freedom from his current ruined life of squalor and addiction. In addition, the kerosene or “wet lightness” comes to act as a symbol for water in a baptism. A baptism in the context of Christianity is seen as an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in their salvation through Jesus Christ. It is also a testimony to the believer’s faith in the final resurrection of the dead. In this scene, Eva turns into a Jesus figure, a savior, and Plum places his full trust in her action. Though many may believe that Eva’s action towards Plum was premeditated murder, I believe it to be an act of mercy for her son. It can also be inferred that the flames will allow Plum the rebirth he needs in order to resurrect his original self. When Hannah confronts Eva about the murder of Plum, Eva explains: “There wasn’t space for him in my womb. And he was crawlin’ back. Being helpless and thinking baby thoughts and dreaming baby dreams and messing up his pants again and smiling all the time. I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn’t do it again. He was growed, a big old thing. Godhavemercy, I couldn’t birth him twice” (71) In this quotation, it is important to note that Eva has room for Plum in her heart but not in her physical womb. Since the war, Plum’s addiction had forced him to revert into a child-like state, which Eva recognized, and details throughout this quotation. The image of a grown man trying to crawl back up into his mother’s womb is disturbing, and Eva knew that she could do nothing else to save him. Eva had already “birthed him once” and she is physically incapable of birthing him again. Through fire, Eva was able to provide Plum the rebirth and clean slate that he needed.
Though Eva lights Plum afire with hopes of saving him, Eva attempts to extinguish Hannah’s fire in hope of saving her. After confessing to her friends that she loves Sula but just doesn’t “like her” (57), Hannah asks her own mother, “’Mamma, did you ever love us?’” (67). This confrontation between Eva and Hannah occurs on the “hottest day anyone in Medallion could remember—a day so hot flies slept and cats were splaying their fur like quills” (70). This descriptive quote is important because it illustrates not only the sheer heat of the day which can act as a reference to fire and even to hell, but it also showcases the rising tensions between mother and daughter. Hannah led her life in a “scandalous” manner. She slept with whatever men she wanted and had her own life and individuality apart from being a mother. Ghasemi explains Hannah’s situation perfectly by arguing that she “demystifies another aspect of Black woman’s stereotyping as she does not entirely fit in the category of the ideal Black mother or the jezebel figure. She is just an adequate mother who takes care of her daughter’s needs and loves her, as she professes in the course of the novel, but does not ‘like’ her, unlike the idealized mother whose life interest is supposed to be embodied in her child” (Ghasemi 5). One could say that like Icarus, Hannah flew too close to the sun and tried to have it all, that is a personal identity and a good family life.
When taking into consideration Hannah’s actual death, the Icarus analogy remains relevant because Hannah caught on fire from standing too close to it: It was then she saw Hannah burning. The flames from the yard fire were licking the blue cotton dress, making her dance. Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own. She lifted her heavy frame up on her good leg, and with fists and arms smashed the windowpane. Using her stump as support on the window sill, her good leg as a lever, she threw herself out of the window. Cut and bleeding she clawed the air trying to aim her body toward the flaming, dancing figure. (Morrison 75-76) At the end of Hannah’s life, it is her own ignorance and pride that caused her demise, whereas Eva acts selflessly by flinging herself out of the window in attempt to save her daughter. The flames which make Hannah’s body “dance” at first glance seem pure, childish, and whimsical, when in reality Hannah is writhing in pain from being burned alive. As an instinct, Eva knew “there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover he daughter’s body with her own” (77). This notion aligns with what one would traditionally associate with a self-less motherhood, whereas Sula had watched her mother burn “not because she was paralyzed but because she was interested” (78). The symbolic nature of Hannah’s death by fire acts as a shifting point, or midpoint of motherhood within the Peace family. Instead of recognizing her mother in flames as a negative image, Sula rather watches in a sick interest, completely disassociated from her mother as opposed to Eva who jumps out of a window in attempt to save her daughter.
Ghasemi argues that the “patriarchal society defines motherhood as an empty function, where the mother exists only in relation to her child, never allowed to display an identity distinct from that of her children” (Ghasemi 19). When taking Ghasemi’s observation into consideration, I have to ask myself, was Hannah punished with death by fire because of her attempt to have an identity aside from Sula? Unlike Plum, Hannah was not rebirthed or cleansed by the fire, but rather, she was punished for her duplicitous lifestyle. Hannah’s punishment by fire could allude to fire and brimstone and God’s wrath for Hannah’s many adulterous affairs. The final example of motherhood within the Peace family that I will explore is with Sula and the mothering of herself. Ghasemi argues that “Morrison extends the notion of motherhood to the individual’s self-creation through ‘mothering’ themselves” (2). Because of her neglect to mother children, Sula becomes the antithesis of a mother figure. Upon Sula’s return to town Eva asks Sula, “’When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you’” to which Sula replies, “’I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself’” (Morrison 92). This notion that Sula wants to make herself as opposed to making somebody else is rather modern. It illustrates that she is more interested in making herself the best woman she can be, without having to fall into the traditional constricting role of motherhood. Later, Sula says to Eva, “any more fires in this house, I’m lighting them! … whatever’s burning in me is mine!” (93). Herein, Morrison is critiquing traditional portrayals of motherhood and Black motherhood in particular. In this novel, fire is associated with motherly love in the deaths of both Plum and Hannah, yet, instead of fire burning on the outside of Sula she is burning on the inside. Sula’s internal burn acts as a self-motivator to be different and to not conform to the standards of the society and the patriarchy by becoming a mother. In addition, in this quote Sula claims her own autonomy by saying the “any more fire in this house, I’m lighting them!”, because up to this point in the novel, Sula has yet to solidify her autonomy within her familial construct. Sula continues to further this autonomy when she says to Eva, “’I ain’t never going to need you. And you know what? Maybe one night when you dozing in that wagon flicking flies and swallowing spit, maybe I’ll just tip on up here with some kerosene and—who knows—you may make the brightest flame of them all’” (94). What this quote illustrates is that Sula in her quest for independence, does not understand that both the fiery death of her mother and uncle were out of mercy and love. Yet, she decides to threaten her grandmother with fire because Sula is incapable of understanding maternal love.
It is also interesting that Sula argues that Eva will make “’the brightest flame of them all’”. This statement could refer to the fact that in Sula’s mind Eva is the supposed “matriarch” of the family, and therefore has the most to lose, or that in Sula’s mind Eva will pay for her sins/alleged murders. With the character of Sula, Morrison plays with the concept of female identity and shows that the extremity of Sula’s self-realized character arguably goes too far. Sula ultimately dies of a fever. Her insides end up figuratively burning: “at last it covered her, filled her eyes, her nose, her throat, and she woke gagging and overwhelmed with the smell of smoke. Pain took hold. First, a fluttering as of doves in her stomach, then a kind of burning, followed by a spread of thin wires to other parts of her body” (148). Smoke from her dream of fire begins to metaphorically suffocate Sula. This notion of metaphorical smoke from flames is import to my claim of fire as societal pressures of women/motherhood, because it is ultimately what kills her. It is of value that Sula feels “fluttering” in her stomach, this could allude to the fact that her womb remained vacant until the day that she died. The doves are also important as well. Doves are a universal symbol of peace, and the “fluttering as of doves in her stomach” could allude to the fact that she has come to terms with the fact that she will never fill her societal role as a mother. In addition, the burning that had been inside of her, her whole life ended up consuming her. This burning can either be thought of as the societal pressure to have a child, or on the other hand it could be Sula’s problematic individualism.
Through the different fire imagery and its effects on the Peace family, Morrison details a progression in the portrayal of Black motherhood in Sula. First, Eva the arguably stereotypical self-sacrificing “matriarch” who literally puts her leg out on the line to ensure the well-being of her children. In the middle is Hannah who provides Sula her basic needs, and lives her own risqué life but gets punished to death by fire. And then, there is Sula who decides to mother herself and defy any and all stereotypes of Black motherhood. Though these three pictures of Black motherhood vary immensely, Morrison succeeds by twisting each into their own cautionary tale through the use of fire symbolism.
Ghasemi, Parvin. “Revision of Motherhood, Maternity, and Matriarchy in Toni Morrison’s Novels.” Order No. 9518745 The Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 22 Mar. 2018. Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Vintage International, 2004.
The Multidimensional Birthmark: A Study of Sula’s Character
As intricate entities, humans are like prisms: we have several layers that make up our inherent nature. During various interactions and instances, we react differently and thus allow novel parts of us to become apparent. Sula, in Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name, is a character of complexity, whose diverse qualities materialize when she faces new situations. Her manifold attributes manifest as the birthmark above her eye. Sula’s inherently complex nature causes people in her life to perceive the mark differently. From snake, to rose, to tadpole, these varying perceptions all mirror symbols created in their imagination, yet all represent real attributes of Sula’s disposition. To render as a progressive, complex, and individual person, Sula embraces the impurity of her birthmark and allows all of its symbolism to envelope her in her inherent characteristics: rose sensuality, snake cunning, and tadpole transformation.
Living in a community where African- American females had very set roles, Sula allowed herself to ignore societal norms and embrace the sensuality of the rose. As a sexually free woman, Sula provided a center for herself through sexual intercourse. Unlike other women, she embraced sensuality and passion. She had sex for her own personal benefit, not for the pleasure of her male counterparts. “She waited patiently for him to turn away…leaving her in a postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony” (123). In this way, she set herself apart from the other women; Sula never become attached to anything besides her own feelings. Sula also sensualized her friend Nel showing her that freedom of spirit and body were powerful attributes that a woman could conjure. When Sula cut off her finger, Nel saw female determination. The Peace household enamored Nel showing her a world forged, led, and fostered by women. Sula’s sensual tendencies even sensualized herself. Unlike Nel, she never dreamed of love or comfort, but instead fantasied about “a gray-and-white horse tasting sugar and smelling roses in full view of someone who shared both the taste and the speed” (52). By not being afraid of how others viewed her sensuality, Sula embodied the rose, and allowed her complexity to set the precedent for individuality and boldness to flourish.
Like all intricate people, Sula balanced her positive attributes with evil characteristics. She developed the evil snake above her eye by participating in malevolent acts, as she slept with men for personal gain, even when they were still married men. This caused controversy within the town. “And the fury she created in the women of the town was incredible—for she would lay their husbands once and then no more” (115). The people of the Bottom also believed that Sula pushed down children, came to church without underwear, and belittled their hard cooked food. However, many of these perceived baleful deeds were fallacies and subsequently produced positive outcomes, as they caused the town to change for the better. “They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general, band together against the devil in their midst” (117). Therefore, precisely like the cunning snake, Sula’s malicious acts also served a positive purpose, as they connected the people of the Bottom to themselves, their families, and each other. Transformation equates to growth and development, a period when individuals discover their unique qualities. People progress by gaining experience, learning new things, and understanding themselves and those around them.
The tadpole, a symbol of transformation, also reflected Sula’s character. Sula was unique in The Bottom, because she focused on her own development, not on how other people perceived her. “‘I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself’” (92). She was independent which allowed her to burgeon and unravel personal strength. With her confidence, she created a sense of self-reliance. She was only dependent on her own feelings, not the opinions of others; as she grew no one, man, or woman, could own her beside herself. “‘Whatever’s burning in me is mine!’” (93). This expression of self-respect and worth even translated physically. Like the tadpole, Sula was the epitome of youth. A husband or children never tied her down, and she never seemed to age. “She was near thirty, and unlike them, had lost no teeth, suffered no bruises, developed no ring of fat at the waist of the pocket at the back of her neck” (115). Sula was unlike any woman in the Bottom. Mentally she progressed, and always allowed herself to see things differently, as she grew in different directions. Physically she rained youthful and radiant. The symbolism of Sula’s tadpole birthmark proves that she was an independent, self-reliant, progressive woman.
Sula was a complex woman that embodied the symbols of the rose, snake, and tadpole. She empowered people to see both herself and themselves sensually. The rose took shape on her face as her allure drew people to new realizations of what a woman could be. Sula proved to be as cunning as a snake by disguising her evil deeds as helpful ones. The people of The Bottom believed her to be devious and baleful, but in reality, everything she did was beneficial. Transformation became second nature. She allowed herself to flourish and grow organically, never letting anyone dictate who she should be Therefore, like the youthful, transformative tadpole, Sula maintained a young visage whilst developing into a progressive woman. The various representations of Sula’s birthmark epitomize who she is as a woman, sensual, cunning, and transformative.
The Presence of Absence: Understanding Sula
Absence is an exceedingly powerful thing. Absence is not a brief silence, or an easily forgotten moment, or a matter of little or no consequence. It is a feeling of perpetuity, a constant gnawing in the stomach and at the back of the mind. Absence is always present. In Toni Morrison’s Sula, absence runs rampant amongst the citizens of the Bottom; there is absence of love, of loyalty and understanding, of essentially everything that binds people together; there is blood, and a forsaking of everything else, of everything that matters so much more. Fathers abandon their children, husbands their wives. Mothers stay but leave their children wondering if they have ever been truly loved. Friends turn their backs on one another and choose anger, grief, and sorrow over catharsis. It is the lack of pure loyalty and understanding that leads, without exception, to the downfall of each and every character.
There is no betrayal so great in its devastation as the betrayal of a parent against his or her child. The people of the Bottom consider themselves connoisseurs on the topic of evil; they stand resolute in their collective belief that “the presence of evil [is] something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over” (Morrison 118). However, what they fail to recognize, outwit, and triumph over is the evil that thrives in their narrow minded comfort zones. The presence of evil can be found through the deliberate forsaking of family, an act committed by almost every male character in Sula. BoyBoy abandons his wife and children and then comes back to visit Eva years later, as if that single act of abandonment has not made him entirely worthless. BoyBoy has no loyalty to his wife, and this is true of many of the men in the novel. He represents a larger pattern of behavior – the many husbands who cheat on and leave their wives. It is his narcissistic absconding that makes Eva who she is, and therefore it is BoyBoy who sets off much of the chain reactions in the novel. Had he stayed, Eva would not need to leave her family for 18 months just to provide for her children.
Eva fulfills part of her role as a mother in that she provides for her children, gives them food, clothing, and shelter, but she also leaves her daughter with the question ‘“Mamma, did you ever love us?’” (67). The only time Adams 2Eva’s love is truly apparent is when she is when she kills one child, and when she fails to save another. It is love and it is loyalty Eva feels, but it is a stricter, harsher kind, and in the case of Plum, it is a perversion; she shows that she loves him by setting him alight in flames, so that he may die a death befitting a man. Eva passes on a perverted sense of loyalty to her granddaughter Sula. The only loyalty Sula feels is for herself and for her best friend Nel. Sula goes so far as to cut off part of her own finger to protect Nel from bullies. This is reminiscent of Eva’s willingness to lose her leg for her children, and it shows that Nel and Sula are more like family than friends.
However, family does not mean a right of way to sleep with other people’s husbands. It is not entirely Sula’s fault, as she is taught from a young age “that sex [is] pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable” (44). Though Sula’s love for Nel never wavers, her understanding of loyalty does. Whatever her intentions, whatever their precedent of sharing, Sula wounds Nel, resulting in Nel’s husband Jude leaving her. Jude has no loyalty, no understanding of the unequivocal value of family, and though he buys postcards for his children, he never sends them. Nel, rejected and abandoned by Jude, in turn rejects and abandons Sula. There is a refusal on both ends of the friendship to recognize and understand where the other is coming from, and this lasts until after Sula’s death, when Nel is left with “just circles and circles of sorrow” (174). There is no pure loyalty in Sula. It exists only in perverted forms that invariably lead to devastation in both large and small ways.
BoyBoy, like most men in the Bottom, abandons his family without a hint of remorse, as does Jude, and there is abundant cheating and misappropriation of values. Eva, who raises her kids as best she can, gives no affection, and leaves them wondering if she has ever truly loved them. Sula, with all her love and devotion to Nel, cannot help but hurt her, and Nel cannot forgive her. Loyalty is muddled and misunderstood, and the rampant lack of it in its pure form wreaks agony and disaster upon the people of the Bottom.
From Sula to Oscar Wao: Interpreting Sex in Literature
Love is said to be blind, and sex impervious to reason. However, a person’s outlook on sex is incredibly telling of that person’s fundamental outlooks upon life itself. To some, it is a sacred act to be committed in marriage only, and to others it is an act of fun, to be committed upon any lighthearted whim of desire. It holds a different meaning for all people. In Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” sex is described as an instrument of power for women, as a tool to be used to empower and lift the self out of repression, imposed by both others and the self. Similarly, in her novel Sula, Toni Morrison illustrates sex as a tool that can be used to free women from the societal burden and constraint of stereotypes and expectations. However, she also depicts this attitude as something that can wound and alienate. In his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz portrays sex as a symptom and symbol of deeply rooted cultural ills. All three writers establish sex as a function of society used to perpetuate stereotypes, a function largely dependent upon women but belonging to men, and they work to encourage women to claim it as their right as well.
In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde challenges the Western masculinist characterization of the erotic as an element of human debasement, as well as its use as a tool of oppression. She argues that this framing of the erotic has ghettoized women’s sensuality, a means by which people know and orient themselves to the world, thereby erasing a significant form of women’s liberating power. To confront this erasure, Lorde offers a view of the erotic as a system of understanding which give shape to knowledge of a time, a critical mode through which women may attain excellence. Lorde’s position on the erotic has established itself as a political, social, and academic tool of deconstruction, subversion, and imagination. Although the liberating power of the erotic lies in its point of origin (the self), Lorde suggests that women have been taught to question the self as a source, “to suspect what is deepest in [them]selves,” which “has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information,” (Lorde 53). Oppression is a cyclical process that systematically suppresses various forms of power, and Lorde’s essay is a response to this suppression, particularly in regards to her assertion that the relationship between oppression and power is often marked by corruption and distortion: “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change” (Lorde 53). An example of such distortion is the way the erotic itself has been misrepresented as pornography, a way of experiencing sensation, acquiring knowledge without feeling.
This distortion of the erotic’s power reinforces docility, obedience, and external definition, all of which contribute to the cycle of oppression through the process of dehumanization. Morality and equality are irrelevant in the face of a man’s libido, and it is this farce of societal understanding that Morrison emphasizes through her portrayal of sex in Sula. The titular character operates beneath the understanding of sex as “pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable,” (Morrison 44). However, this is an understanding of sex not widely shared by the women in the community in which Sula lives. The entire town is aware that this is an attitude Sula inherited from her mother, who in turn inherited it from her mother; “manlove” is the most valued heirloom belonging to the Peace family. However, this thinking is what causes the community of the Bottom to regard Sula as an instrument of evil, as doing the devil’s bidding; she is different, and immune to their judgments that come constantly and without understanding, and thus she is alienated from all others. The tragedy and travesty of this outlook on sex is that is far from being equally applied. The men of the Bottom are more than enthusiastic participants in the sex that Sula is made an outcast for, and yet they face no reprimands, no punishment. Just as boys will be boys, men will be men –– this is both the definition and the justification for their behavior. This outlook on sex prevents human connection in Sula; much of the community hinges upon it, and yet no one understands it, or even attempts to.
Díaz illustrates sex in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as being representative of deeply problematic gender stereotypes. Masculinity in the novel is measured by the timeless method of notches in the belt; the more women a man sleeps with the more he is considered a man. Men are the main villains in the novel, portrayed mainly through their treatment of women; over and over again, men treat women like objects, use them to satisfy themselves and toss them aside like trash when they are done. Women are inherently involved in sex, but not appreciated. Sex is not theirs to be enjoyed, only to be taken from them, with or without their consent. Communities in the novel love sex, take great pride in it, but it also prevents human connection. Sex in the novel very clearly draws a line, between gender equality among men and women, but also among the single side of men; throughout the novel, Oscar is mocked and ridiculed for being less of a man and less of a Dominican for his lack of sex. In his final letter, Oscar reveals that he has finally had sex, and of the experience he writes “So this is what everybody [is] always talking about! Diablo! If only [he had] known. The beauty! The beauty!” (Díaz 353). Díaz spends a majority of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao documenting the forces of evil in this world—despair, loneliness, colonialism, Trujillo—but he ends it all with this passage. He ends it all with a letter that affirms life and beauty and sex, but only with the woman involved being a loving, willing participant enjoying the sex.
Sex is often misunderstood and mis-characterized, both in spite of and because of its prevalence in society. It literally creates life, and it serves as a definition of life for some, but often for the wrong reasons. It is something often taken by men, with or without the permission of women, and in this it becomes a tool used to perpetuate inequality, to oppress women. Lorde, Morrison, and Díaz all take less than common stances on the topic of sex, and proclaim it as something that needs to be claimed and redefined by women, for their empowerment and betterment, and ultimately for the empowerment and betterment of society as a whole.