Gender Affecting Conformity of the Individual in Sula and The Glass Menagerie

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer


Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), is set in a tense climate of racial segregation and complex community relationships from the years 1919 to 1965, and explores conformity of the individual and how it can differ depending on gender in particular, especially when Sula Peace, a woman who acts the near opposite of her peers, states how “[she] knows what every colored woman in this country is doing (p.143)”. The Glass Menagerie (1944), Tennessee Williams’s memory play set in post-war America similarly explores a struggling family community and highlights to which degree each character conforms to their individual expected societal role, and also explores their complicity in doing so. While there are exceptions in the form of the idiosyncrasies of Morrison’s Sula Peace and forgotten aspirations of Williams’s Jim O’Connor, a general pattern on gender affecting conformity of the individual can be seen to emerge in both texts, that being that female characters generally conform more and if they do not, face a much more hostile reaction from the wider community.

However, The Glass Menagerie is a drama and the reasons that certain male character’s appear to conform less are made clearer through Tom Wingfield’s narration; the female character’s inner psychology is left to Williams’s use of ‘plastic theatre’ techniques, such as the exaggerated music at key moments and obvious lighting tactics. Conversely, Morrison is more ambiguous through her use of prose medium, the narrative point of view being overwhelmingly female, which hence provides little insight into the male character’s psyche. Arguably, this may be due to the limitations Morrison felt as a woman writing from a male viewpoint. Moreover, while Williams uses a single, microcosmic stage setting limited to five characters, Morrison is more adventurous in her depiction of society in Sula, presenting a range of individuals, all varying in conformity.

Mother’s Sacrifice and Absent Father

The first comparative point between both texts is the presentation of a mother’s sacrifice due to an absent father. Morrison displays Eva Peace’s need to conform for the sake of her children in the chapter ‘1921′ despite the opposite applying to her husband Boy Boy; this establishes the idea that conformity is gender-dependent. Strengthening this, Barbara Christian (1985) asserts the notion that male characters in Sula have little necessity to conform when in a difficult economic situation, as she identifies that the female characters in Sula “must…fit themselves into the place life has set for them”.

Morrison illustrates how this has been made impossible for certain female characters partly through the thoughtless hedonism of men; this is evidenced by the partial narrative of Eva Peace, who is abandoned by her husband “after five years of a sad and disgruntled marriage (p.32)”. Morrison, through the pensive voice of her matriarch Eva, proceeds to detail how “he did whatever he could he liked (p.32)”, implying his ability to continue living a life of Epicureanism that was devoid of any consequences. Subsequently, the character of Eva is removed of any material stability due to her abandonment, and has to continue to conform to the more idealistic role of motherhood that would have been intensified by expectations of women in the early 20th century, because her “children [needed] her; she [needed] money, and…to get on with her life (p.32)”.

The structure of this quotation furthers this; the children emerge as her priority as they are placed first in the sentence, suggesting her need to conform simply to ensure her children’s survival, as well as her own, which is perhaps of a lower importance as this is emphasised later in the quotation. Morrison’s presentation of a financially struggling mother and mostly absent father can be attributed to the contextual frame of poverty and social fragmentation arising from racism. As a result of the Great Migration of African-Americans that occurred between 1916 and 1970, this attempt to escape racial discrimination in the south consolidates Morrison’s presentation of the extreme poverty that droves “disgruntled” fathers away from their families and responsibilities. The nature of such a society tightened a mother’s duty to her children, stifling and forcing her to struggle to a much greater extent than her male counterpart. This contextual point may be heightened due to Morrison’s own life and experience as a single mother, highlighting the limited use of a male character’s viewpoint and experience, evidenced by Morrison through her choice of mostly female narrative perspectives when describing particularly harrowing plot events. An example of which can be seen in the same chapter where Eva is forced to use the remainder of her food, a further allusion to her poverty, to relieve her son Plum’s constipation.

Shoving “the last bit of food she had up his ass” in the “freezing stench (p.34)” is a highly crude and emotive description of events, reflective of the general experience of single mothers in the context of when Sula was set. Comparisons can be made between William’s portrayals of freedom granted to men by society in The Glass Menagerie, through the absence of the Wingfield’s father figure who chose to abandon his family, similar to Morrison’s presentation of Boy Boy. However, unlike Morrison, Williams suggests the use of dramatic prop devices in his stage directions rather than graphic narration, partly through the ever-present portrait of him in the Wingfield apartment to sustain the existence of this character and the nature of his abandonment, as “a blown-up photograph of the father hangs on the wall of the living room… smiling, as if to say ‘I will be smiling forever.'(p.4) Through this stage direction, Williams appears to suggest the father shows no guilt towards his abandonment, akin to Morrison’s presentation of Boy Boy, using his jovial and unbothered appearance as a vehicle to do so, “ineluctably smiling”.

This idea is sustained by Williams when Tom Wingfield details the last known contact with his father as a “postcard from Mazatlan…containing a message of two words: ‘Hello – Goodbye!’ and no address (p.5)”. Just as Boy Boy does with the Peace household, the father appears to fulfil his own desires at the cost of his families financial stability and intensifies his wife’s need to conform to an idealistic maternal role at the cost of her own freedom. Amanda Wingfield has to relentlessly belittle her son about his menial factory job, following frequent power cuts in their apartment, and as this is the sole setting of the play, Williams is able to emphasise the inescapable situation their father has left them in. Babcock (1999) encapsulates this perception by exploring Williams’s own comments concerning the “adjustment and conformity produced by organized society”. This Marxist approach can be applied to the circumstances in which Williams shows the father to abandon his family.

By “[giving] up his job with the telephone company” and leaving his family, Williams’s belief that the standardization of production forced men into a repressive corporate structure suggested by The Last of My Solid Gold Watches1 becomes both relevant and applicable. In addition to this, according to Babcock (1999), the decades following the war bred an “instinctive radical” and “revolutionary” climate in America, drawing men away from conforming to the archetypal role of a provider, which is again evidenced by Williams in the form of the portrait of the father, depicted in military dress. The difference in contexts of the production of the texts is therefore a valid comparison; Morrison differs from Williams in this sense, as she never reveals an explicit reason for Boy Boy’s disgruntlement. Williams differs from her in this respect and utilises the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of thought provided here by Babcock (1999), and the post-World War One context of the play to suggest a general male disengagement from previously instilled societal roles regarding the family.

Morrison, conversely, could be viewed as sophisticated in her choice write the novel in 1973, setting it much earlier in the century to convey her historical advantage and offer a more evaluative perspective of the representation of social conformity. After evaluating this specific component of the overall comparison of both texts, when discussing the fulfilment of a father’s own desires at the cost of his families’ liberty, the aforementioned links between the texts are seen to outweigh their differences, confirming gender has a significant effect of social conformity.

The Comparison of Two Characters

This essay thus far has focused on the presentation of greater female conformity and has partly been sustained by the historically ingrained societal attitudes that dictate it is a mother’s duty to sacrifice her liberty for her children, whereas an absent father will only receive the scorn of a few. However, Williams’s characterisation of Jim O’Connor shows that male social conformity is also relevant and could have been fuelled by the influence of capitalist values America, and also possibly homosexual repression, both intensifying in the 1940s and 1950s.

In the stage directions, he is simply described as a ‘a nice, ordinary, young man”, painting him from the offset as a conventional male character and simultaneously as Tom’s dramatic foil. Using impassioned dialogue as a vehicle to do so, Williams paints Tom as deeply dissatisfied with his life, unlike Jim; in anger at his menial factory job, he shouts “for sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever!”(p.23), articulating a similar sense of sacrifice Morrison crafts in Eva Peace. Williams’s choice of the use of props, noises and stage directions to convey a blatant parallel with the characters states of mind on stage is evidenced by the on-screen image of Jim as “The high school hero” followed by Tom’s comment that “[Jim’s] speed had definitely slowed…” (p.45)”. Williams may have done so to show Jim’s eventual sacrifice of the significant qualities he possessed in his youth as a result of conforming to fit into the role of a stable provider in a profit-driven career. Jim and Tom’s respective portrayals reinforce the idea of male conformity in the pursuit of professional success; both have the same job. However Tom seeks more creativity in his life and disregards financial gains, rejecting the expectation placed on him to be responsible in providing.

As Williams explained to his literary agent, Audrey Wood: ‘I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual’ (1939). After the discussion of his portrayal of both men, Williams’s notion here can be confirmed as he presents Tom’s aguish at his unfulfilling life in Scene Three where he refers to himself as a “slave”, whilst Jim, a content conformist is presented clearly as fulfilled despite of his “slowed down” life. As a result, this point acts in challenging the argument that social conformity is overwhelmingly fuelled by sexism, with women bearing the worst of this. Williams’s own life and the effects of it on his plays may be brought into discussion here. Although writing as a man in the mid-20th century, he was homosexual and thus would have likely been derogatively referred to as possessing feminine qualities. Therefore his presentation of the social claustrophobia of Tom, the blind conformity of men like Jim, but also the anguish of Amanda, and Laura’s repression of self may possibly be interpreted as a fragmented representation of Williams’s experience living in a time when attitudes towards homosexuality were hostile. In this respect, the extent of the effect of gender on conformity is decreased.

Morrison employs a similar device through the characterisation Nel Wright and Sula Peace, and their friendship; like Williams’s presentation of Jim and Tom, Morrison crafts the characters as each other’s foil. Both characters are African-American females living in the same community, but Nel chooses a life of piety, conventionality and conformity, Sula choosing the opposite. Dorothy H. Lee (1983) attempts to explain this by suggesting that like Nel’s mother, Helene Wright, who “barricades herself against racial humiliation…behind suppression of emotion”, by living a life removed of any scandal or controversy is trying to avoid such “racial humiliation”. Although both writers are similar in their use of literary foils, Morrison uses allusions to African-American supernatural folklore, to show that although both genders have the capability to not conform, women have a lot more to sacrifice by doing so. Such allusions are seen in the chapter ‘1941′ where Morrison writes “because Sula was dead…a brighter day was dawning.

There were signs (p.151)”. Such language is rich with connotations of the supernatural, as by placing a consequence of action – the verb “dawning” – after the establishment of a death, Morrison is implying Sula can still affect reality even when her own reality has ceased to exist. This narrative comment, shows how Sula’s unconventional life aroused such vehement aversion towards her, far more than Williams’s portrayal of Tom Wingfield and his father, that she is likened to a witch-like figure who needed to be purged from her community. This is a literary feature not seen in Williams’s play; perhaps he had less creative manoeuvre to do within a shorter drama piece, and more significantly, writing as a white man, possibly wouldn’t have as strong affiliations with such cultural folklore, unlike Morrison in her piece of black-feministic prose.

Messing (2014) highlights this by reminding readers of the importance of community over individual gains in African culture; Sula is ostracised due to her selfish and nonconforming behaviour. This perhaps was intensified by contextual factors, as the racial persecution residents of the Bottom experienced meant they would have had a shared sense of unity and identity. The difference in reaction to female non-conformists in comparison to male non-conformists is encapsulated by Morrison through Nel’s chastising of Sula, saying “You’re not a man. You can’t be walking around all dependent-like, doing whatever you like (p.142)”. The imperatives “you can’t” and “you’re not” used by Morrison reinforce Nel’s concrete certainty, and by saying “dependent-like” instead of “independent” implies Nel is uncomfortable even with the concept of female independence due to such heavily ingrained ideas of conformity.

Williams shows none of the deterioration or estrangement or that Sula experiences towards Tom and the general suspicion directed at him only stems from his mother, to a far lesser extent. Williams makes the severity of the consequences Tom faces less significant than Morrison by his comparatively confined setting of the text; the play never ventures from the apartment, with a much more limited range of characters. Williams aptly uses a description of the setting to establish the claustrophobic effect it has on Tom; it is “symptomatic of the… fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation” (p.3).

Conversely, by not only spanning the geographical range of her text (the larger Bottom community and Helene Wright’s journey to other American states in the chapter 1920), the time frame that ranges from 1919 to 1965, and the much vaster number of characters, Morrison can display the effects of Sula’s non-conformity in a far more multifaceted, and therefore damning way, as Morrison depicts a wider society, in a geographical and historical sense. In both texts, the characters of Jim O’Connor and Sula Peace together represent exceptions to the previously instilled belief that women are usually forced to conform in a higher instance to men, as they have a lot more to lose from deferring from social norms. However, the society crafted in Morrison’s novel still sustains the original argument effectively, as they react overwhelmingly more vehemently towards Sula, the female character, perhaps emphasised by what Moya Bailey (2010) coined as ‘misogynoir’, describing the intersection of anti-blackness and sexism experienced by black women.


In response to the above arguments, it is clear the representation of social conformity deals with a psychological phenomenon that has deeply complex roots; there is no single factor to blame, as through the study of just these two literary texts, issues of gender, race, class and sexuality are all brought to discussion. However, some are revealed to a greater extent than others, namely gender, and this is also the factor most convincingly conveyed by both Morrison and Williams. When suggesting the more convincing of the two in portraying gender-driven conformity, one cannot ignore Morrison’s explicit declaration of such inequality that has been previously discussed, Nel Wright’s assured statement that “You’re not a man. You can’t be walking around all dependent-like, doing whatever you like (p.142)”. This quotation alone arguably embodies the point made that women face an overwhelmingly more hostile societal reaction when they do not conform, in comparison to men.

When evaluating Williams’s contributions to this discussion, his aforementioned portrayals of gender driven conformity lack the passionate, at times graphic, portrayal offered by Morrison; it is harder for an audience to understand his character’s interactions with conformity as they are set in, and also written within a slightly more accommodating context. Williams himself may have been projecting his frustrations at homophobia and his characters may have struggled with financial inhibitions, but neither could draw upon the brutal forms of racism and misogyny both Morrison and her characters share to an extent. Returning back to the argument initially offered, exploring the extent to which gender plays a role in the representation of social conformity, it can be understood from this argument that both authors portray the effects of race and class significantly. However, ultimately gender emerges as exercising the greatest influence due to institutionalised societal roles dealt to men and women, forcing most into lives of mindless conformity and condemning those who dare not to into a life of ostracism and resentment.

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