Projecting a New Vision of Selfhood and Black Aesthetics in Toni Morrison’s Sula

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

“We want everything said about us to tell of the best and highest and noblest in us. We fear that the evil in us will be called racial, while in others, it is viewed as individual”. (Du Bois, 55-56)

W.E.B. Du Bois expressed his desire for the idealized literary representation of the blacks in these words, in his essay “Negro Art” published in the ‘Crisis’ in 1921. Similar views have been expressed by Langston Hughes’ and other vanguards of the Black Aesthetic movement who demanded for a respectable image of the black self in literature. Their demands are based on the dominant Afro American critical assumptions that the world is divided into black and white, where race determines the identity, subsuming sexual difference and literature has the power to unify and liberate the race. Sula, written in 1973, by Toni Morrison offers liberating possibilities as it transgresses all stereotypical notions and binary oppositions.

‘Sula’ exploits the binary oppositions of good/evil, self/other, virgin/whore but moves beyond them, mingles and blurs these with other binary oppositions. The novel implies paradoxes and ambiguity right from the beginning. The novel is set in the Bottom, which is spatially situated on the top. The novel questions the western fundamental assumption of the unity of the individual self. It establishes that we are always one and the other at the same time, positing Luce Irigaray’s viewpoint- “Day and night are mingled in our gazes. If we divide light from night, we give up the lightness of our mixture. We put ourselves into watertight compartments, break ourselves up into parts, cut ourselves in two. We are always one and the other at the same time.” (Irigaray, 79).

The traditional concept of the self has been questioned by Morrison throughout the narrative. By decentering and deferring the presence of Sula, the novelist critiques the concept of a protagonist, hero or major character. The novel introduces Shadrack, Nel, Eva, Helene, Hannah and other characters, before introducing Sula. She is introduced almost after half of the novel is over; hence, her presence is constantly deferred.

The novel’s prologue that describes a community’s destruction is contrary to the reader’s expectations that the narrative is about black’s oppression by the dominant whites. The narrative entitle dates to the chapters, but they are hardly related to the plot of the novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time without any reference to real time. Though the first chapter is titled ‘1919’, it begins with a reference to the second world war, then moves regressively to the National Suicide day, instituted in 1920, and then again backwards to Shadrack’s plight in World War I. Hence, Morrison destroys the textual unity and gives the novel a fragmentary and elliptical quality to prevent a unitary interpretation. Walter Benjamin writes in this context – “Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as on reproduces it. The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.” (Benjamin, 89).

The novel is built around the friendship of Sula and Nel. Despite their friendship and love, they are distinct and compromises with life, take different decisions that eventually led to the breakup of their relationship. Morrison describes the foundation of their friendship in following words- “So when they met, first in those chocolate halls and next through the ropes of the swing, they felt the ease and comfort of old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them. They had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for”. (Sula, 52).

Despite their closeness, Morrison develops the character of Sula and Nel as separate adult personalities. Sula’s independent nature propels her out of Medallion. Sula, unlike Nel, refuses to accept the conventional boundaries of her race and gender, rejects the mores of outside world and well as of her community and gets isolated. When she returns to Medallion after ten years, she appears younger than her counterparts do. Her grandmother Eva scolds at her, suggesting she needs to get married and have some babies, to which Sula replies – “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself” (Sula, 92). She returns to the Bottom with absolutely nothing to do. Her dilemma is explained by Morrison – “Had she paints, or clay, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, which might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” (Sula, 121). Sula is a man-loving woman, who exists as a sexually desiring subject rather than as objects of male’s desire. Sula uses men just like her mother, Hannah did, but with a different spirit.

She frequently goes to bed with men. Whereas, for Hannah, lovemaking was comforting, it was wicked for Sula. Her only purpose in life seemed that of self-gratification. On the contrary, Nel’s sexuality is in obedience to a system of ethical judgement and moral virtue. She cannot imagine sex without her husband, Jude. Her sexuality is harnessed to and enacted within the institutions that sanction sexuality for women- marriage and family. After Nel finds Sula and Jude involve in the act of sexual intimacy, she describes her thighs as “empty and dead….and that it was Sula who had taken the life from them. She is of the view that “both of them left her with no thighs and no heart, just her brain raveling away”. (Sula, 110). In the characters of Sula, Eva and Hannah, Renita Weems observes – “Morrison pays tribute to those women who are doing everything in life but what are supposed to be doing: Creative women – like so many of us and our mamas – without outlets for our creativity.” (Weems, 97).

For Sula, sexual expression is not only an act of self-exploration, but it is also associated with creativity seen in the poems she creates while making love to Ajax. However, the community’s rigid norms did not absorb Sula’s impulses. Morrison writes – “If Sula had any sense she’d go somewhere and sing or get into show business. Without an art form, her tremendous curiosity and gift for metaphor become destructive.” (Sula, 121). To Nel, such creativity is closed because of her resistance to self-exploration. As a result of her actions, Sula becomes a pariah. She is different from anyone the people of Bottom have ever known. She does not seek money or other material gain as she feels she has no obligation to explain her actions. Out of her virtue, her only mooring, as any good woman would do, Nel goes to meet Sula on her deathbed. Due to their estranged friendship, their conversation is based on the oppositions of good and evil, right and wrong. Nel questions – “I was good to you, Sula why don’t that matter?” to which Sula replies – “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.” (Sula, 144-45). Sula’s reply exasperates Nel and as she leaves, Sula has the last word in the form of an uncertainty —-

‘How you know?’ Sula asked.

“Know what?” Nel still wouldn’t look at her.

“About who was good. How do you know it was you?”

“What you mean?”

“I mean maybe it was’nt you. Maybe it was me.” (Sula, 167).

Nel contemplates Sula’s question for years by doing the ‘right thing’ (Sula, 167). As a part of her charitable work, she visits Eva in Sunnydale (home for the aged). Eva rants about a long buried childhood incident involving Sula and Nel. She questions Nel as to how she killed the little boy so many years ago. Nel quickly says it was Sula who threw the boy into the river. Eva says— “You. Sula. What’s the difference?” (Sula, 168). Nel, on hearing this, leaves immediately. Holding her coat tight against the winter wind, she begins her long walk home. Suddenly she stops. The Gray fuzzy ball, which had covered Nel’s heart since Jude’s departure, now begins to break up. This is the moment when Nel realizes that she is not missing Jude, rather Sula—- “All that time I thought, I was missing Jude….O Lord, Sula, she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirlgirl’. It was a fine cry- loud and long- but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow”. (Sula, 174).

Nel’s cry prepares her for what Sula strained to experience throughout her life: a process of remembering and looking back that creates an intimacy with the self. Nel’s self develops from static conception of self to a fluid one, that was embraced by Sula. Holloway is of the opinion that Nel is “Everywoman”. “ She carries the additional burden of shadow that white culture projects onto black people. But she is still typical of most women in western culture”. (Holloway, 80). Eva’s reiteration of the idea that Sula and Nel are one, forces Nel to a self recognition because Nel cannot refute Eva’s details. Eva jolts Nel into remembering that she did in some way enjoy the excitement of that incident of killing the boy— “All these years she had been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behaviour when Sula was uncontrollable. Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity and compassion was the only tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation.” (Sula, 146). Nel’s self image is shaken after this realization. However, revisiting Suls’s grave provides her the psychic impetus necessary to her self recognition and acceptance— “Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things”. (Sula, 146).

Nel breaks out of the conventional vision of goodness, which in its preoccupation with propriety, fails to nurture truthfulness necessary to relationships that clarify the self. During their childhood days, Sula’s and Nel’s antithetical strengths and weaknesses assure them mutual dependency on each other. Morrison through their relationship establishes that development of individuality is necessary to moral maturity— “In the safe harbor of each other’s company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perception of things”. (Sula, 47). In Sula’s ten years absence, Nel developed a conventional feminine role, and Sula, in contrast learned to take care of herself and take responsibility for her actions. Sula’s unconventional behavior made Nel join with the community and view her as a pariah. Presenting these modes of perception of self, Morison refuses to sentimentalize or deny their inherent limitations. Necessary to self-authenticity, they remain in their isolated states, destructive to both themselves and their community.

By creating an unforgettable story of friendship, Morrison allows the readers to enter the community of the Bottom, which she sees as a pariah community. There are “several levels of pariah figure in her writings” (Tate, 129). She continues—- “Black people are pariahs. The civilization of Black people that lives apart from but in juxtaposition to other civilizations is a pariah relationship” (Tate, 129). Morrison explains that the people of the community considered Sula as a pariah, they thought “evil had a natural place in the universe; they did not wish to eradicate it. They just wished to protect themselves from it” (Tate, 129). The community allowed Sula to exist as a part of natural order of things. They neither encouraged nor discouraged her. Morrison rejects the concept of self as unified. Though Sula and Nel are represented as two parts of a self, those parts are distinct. The relationship of other to self is seen as “different but connected rather than separate and opposed”. (Gilligan, 147).


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