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.
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