“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.
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